Posts Tagged ‘motor racing’


Saudi Arabia accused of sportswashing with F1 race this weekend

Saudi Arabia is hosting the F1 race this weekend and a range of human rights groups have expressed alarm at this latest attempt at sportswashing by the regime. Stars like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will be in racing who both claim to be supportive of LGBQ rights. Perhaps they are not aware that same sex relations in Saudi are banned and the penalty if caught is flogging.

The human rights situation in Saudi hardly needs repeating. The introduction to the 2020 Amnesty report for the country says:

Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly has been intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

The regime likes to promote the fact that women can now drive without mentioning that those who campaigned for this freedom were imprisoned. Now released they are not allowed to speak to the press and their freedom of movement is tightly controlled.

There is a slight crumb of comfort in that there is greater media attention being paid to sportswashing and news of cases are beginning to appear in the sports pages. In response to criticisms a spokesman for F1 said:

We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence. For decades Formula One has worked hard be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sports like Formula One are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.

‘For decades’ is key here since the situation in Saudi has not improved. The extent of its ‘positive force’ as it puts it is hard to discern.

Historically, regimes like USSR and East Germany used sporting prowess to promote their credibility: who could forget stars like Olga Korbut for example? Today, Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to import sporting events to promote the myth that it is a reformed state. Their recent investment in Newcastle United is also part of this campaign. They are reported to have spent £1.5bn on this activity. Human Rights Watch has suggested it might be cheaper to reform itself rather than spend a fortune on sportswashing.

Might things change? The resolute action by the Women’s Tennis Association in relation to the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is perhaps an encouraging sign. Peng wrote about the abuse she sustained from a senior Chinese official and has all but disappeared. Only the IOC seems keen of maintaining the myth that she is free to live her life. The WTA on the other hand has received considerable support for its action.

Sources: Newsweek, BBC, Human rights Watch, Wikipedia, Guardian.


Bahrain Grand Prix puts motor sport in the spotlight again

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One of the countries which consistently ignores human rights is the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Gulf. The list of infractions is rather long: trials are unfair and confessions extracted using torture; there is no freedom of speech and the last independent newspaper was closed three years ago; women do not have equal rights; the death penalty has been reintroduced and prison conditions are exceedingly poor. Reports by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations set these out in some detail.

The UN report notes:

The Committee is concerned about reports that acts of torture and ill‑treatment are often committed by law enforcement officials, including as a means of eliciting confessions, that, despite the prohibition in domestic law, confessions obtained under duress have been used as evidence in court and that allegations made by defendants in this respect have not been adequately investigated. The Committee is also concerned about reports of torture in prisons, particularly in the Jau prison. It notes with concern the lack of information on investigations carried out and convictions handed down vis-à-vis the number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment (arts. 2, 6, 7 and 14).

United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner 2017

For some years, human rights groups have asked FIA, the Grand Prix organisation to adopt human rights policies but it’s website does not appear to have any such policy.

The Formula One champion, Lewis Hamilton, has spoken out about the human rights situation in Bahrain prior to the race starting tomorrow (28 March 2021). He said:

I don’t think we should be going to these countries and ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a good time and then leave. Human rights I don’t think, should be a political issue. We all deserve equal rights.

Jerome Pigmire, AP, 25 March 2021

He went on to say that he had hoped to speak to the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa after last year’s race. His answer is a little oblique explaining that such matters were best addressed in private without clarifying whether he had or not. In any event, this is progress and for a prominent driver to be highlighting this issue when the governing body itself seems unconcerned is encouraging. Apparently, Hamilton received letters from three survivors of torture in Bahrain giving details of extreme beatings and sexual abuse. This led him to try and educate himself into what was happening there which has included speaking to Amnesty International.

The Kingdom denies denies claims of human rights abuses saying that ‘[the] promotion and protection of human rights [are] an essential part of the Kingdom’s strategy in developing state institutions and national legislation.’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have asked the new F1 CEO Stefan Domenicali to establish a commission of independent experts to investigate the human rights impact of F1’s activities in Bahrain (27 March).

Sport is about money. Despotic regimes have deep pockets with which to host international sporting events such as motor racing, football, boxing or golf. Few questions are asked and the sports pages of newspapers are full of action photos and breathless prose about these events. They rarely sully their coverage with information about the gross human rights infringements, torture and executions taking place in the host country. Blind eyes are turned.

But maybe things are beginning to change. Sporting heroes have huge followings sometimes from people who may not pay too much attention to politics. Perhaps Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton are early examples of greater awareness by sporting stars of what is going on around them. Whereas human rights activists can be safely ignored by politicians, these stars with their huge followings, cannot be.


Issue of Sportswash has emerged again with two Formula 1 races to be held in Bahrain

UPDATE 26 November

Guardian piece 

Sport and politics have never been too far apart.  During the Cold War, countries like East Germany and Russia spent enormous sums on their sports programmes in an attempt to demonstrate to the world how successful they were.  Recently, we have seen countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain use their vast wealth to secure favourable media coverage.  Earlier in the year, we featured the attempt to purchase Newcastle FC using Saudi money.

These countries are also able to pay large sums to public relations firms to massage their reputations.  Before we rush to condemn sporting organisations, sportsmen and women too quickly however, we need to look at the tangled web of influence and connections between a variety of people and the Bahraini regime.  One such is the retired Chief of Defence staff Baron, formerly General, Richards of Herstmonceux.  Despite the unrest,  crackdowns and multiple human rights violations in Bahrain, Baron Richards was able to advise them on a variety of areas using his company Palliser Associates and Equilibrium Global.  There are various connections to the former prime minister David Cameron.  Full details and further links can be found on a Daily Maverick piece.

The human rights situation in Bahrain is extremely poor.  Women do not have equal rights; many people are declared stateless; prison conditions are extremely poor with limited medical treatment for those detained; the death penalty is used and there is no free expression to speak of.  There is no independent media.  Amnesty’s report on the country can be read on this link.  Human Rights Watch’s summary says:

Bahrain’s human rights situation continues to be dire.  Courts convict and imprison prominent human rights defenders and opposition leaders for their peaceful activism.  Security forces ill-treat, threaten, and coerce alleged suspects into signing confessions.  Authorities have resumed executions, many after unfair trials marred by torture allegations, and fail to hold officials accountable for torture.  Courts have stripped the citizenship of hundreds, leaving many stateless, and deported dozens of dissidents, journalists, and lawyers as punishments for offenses that include peaceful criticism of the government.  Authorities in 2017 shut down the only independent newspaper in the country as well as opposition parties.  Members of dissolved opposition parties were banned from running in parliamentary elections in November 20.  Human Rights Watch

A full analysis of the political situation in Bahrain is provided by Freedom House.

Western governments, including the UK, have been extremely keen to establish good relations with the state because of lucrative defence spending.  We have also established a base there. It is seen as a ‘core market‘ for us.  The Daily Mail has published an article, with multiple photos, showing the many meetings between the Queen, and other members of our Royal family, and the King of Bahrain.  Lots of jollity on show. 

Sport and Sports Wash is thus just one part of the picture.  Bahrain is a wealthy and powerful regime well able via offers of money and contracts, to ‘buy’ political influence.  But things may be beginning to stir.  World Champion racing driver, Lewis Hamilton, has made statements highlighting human rights issues in countries seeking to sanitise their reputations.  Recently, he said:

We realise we’ve got to not ignore human rights issues in counties that we go to, not just 20 years, 30 years from now, but now.

In another development is that 30 UK cross party members of parliament have written to the Chief Executive of Formula 1, Chase Carey, to express their disquiet at plans to hold the Grand Prix races in Bahrain.

[They expressed] concern that the Bahrain Grand Prix is exploited be the by the Bahrain government to ‘sports wash’ their human rights record

The role of Marcus Rashford is also noteworthy in this regard.  It was his intervention which was key to changing the government’s position on free school meals.  Maybe we are seeing the stirrings of conscience among some sports people that they do have a role to play in the political arena.  With their vast followings and star status, they are in a prime position to speak to their public and highlight some of the terrible things that go on in countries like Bahrain.

Up till now, money, arms sales, and a cosy relationship with politicians, service people and the Royal family, has enabled these regimes to carry on the mistreatment of their subjects, with human rights organisations merely an irritant, a kind of background noise, who can safely be ignored. But sport has a mass following as the prime minister discovered to his discomfort earlier this month. If more sportsman like Hamilton and Rashford, begin to use their power to focus the minds of their fans onto what is going on in these despotic countries, maybe the political ground will shift.


F1 race to go ahead despite widespread human rights infringements in Bahrain

All you need to know about Halo ahead of the 2018 F1 seasonSport is being used more and more to present a sanitised view of a country and to hide or obscure human rights abuses.  Russia with the Olympics and Qatar with the World Cup are both examples of dubious regimes using sport to enhance their image.  In the case of FIFA there is the issue of massive corruption within the organisation itself.

The latest example is Formula 1 and the race to take place in Bahrain.  The country has scant regard for human rights.  Arrests, unfair trials, the use of torture are all commonplace.  In 2017 the last newspaper was closed down.  In a previous blog, we highlighted a local firm in Porton (a village near Salisbury, UK) which supplies spyware to this regime.

As the US State Dept. said in a report on the country in 2017:

The most significant human rights issues [in Bahrain] included reports of arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces; allegations of torture of detainees and prisoners; harsh and potentially life-threatening conditions of detention; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including by the press and via the internet; restriction of academic and cultural events; restrictions on the rights of association and assembly; allegations of restrictions on freedom of movement, including arbitrary citizenship revocation; and limits on Shia political participation.

Further examples of abuse of human rights can be found in a Human Rights Watch report.  Amnesty international has also produced a report saying similar things.

The F1 site itself claims to respect human rights issues in its policy;

  1.  The Formula 1 companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally.

The problem is they do not.  Before races there is a severe clampdown in the area and protestors can be shot.  The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy is one of 15 human rights organisations to have written to F1 president Jean Todt calling on them to act in the case of Najah Yusuf who was imprisoned last year for criticising the regime on Facebook.  The response yesterday is not encouraging:

It’s quite easy,” he said. “We are here for a sport event, not for a political event. That means – first of all, I was surprised that there are still some political turmoil which I don’t think is the reality.

I think that the reality is just that a few people want to create troubles and Formula One is here to make sport, to entertain the people.  We should not be involved in any political questions.  This, people should do, who are here, who are living here. The government, whoever, that’s their job, not our job.  [Statement 30 March 2019, Our italics]

Which rather conflicts with its policy statement above.  It seems as though nothing a country does can stop the likes of F1 or other sporting regimes from carrying on their activities in a country with dubious or dire human rights.  As long as the money’s right …


F1 to take place in Azerbaijan this weekend where human rights are seriously restricted

It’s called ‘sportswash’ and it is the present day attempt by tyrannical regimes to get themselves some positive publicity by hosting a sporting event, in this case, motor racing.  And they do not seem to have any difficulty in persuading sponsors, drivers and others involved to come to their country and lend support to the host however poorly they behave.

Bernie Ecclestone, when questioned about the dismal human rights record in Azerbaijan said:

The moment someone tells me that human rights are, then we can have a look at it, and see when and where it applies.  (Source – Daily Mail)

One could mention the UN Declaration or the European Convention on Human Rights as a starting point but one gets the impression there wouldn’t be much interest.

But Kerry Moscogiuri, director of campaigns at Amnesty International UK, said:

The arrival of Formula One in Baku must not steer attention away from the Azerbaijani authorities’ human rights crackdown.

Behind the glitz the authorities are locking up their critics, have shut down NGOs and arrested or harassed their leaders.  The recent release of some of those jailed on trumped-up charges should not fool anyone into thinking that the wind in Baku is blowing in a different direction.

Azerbaijan has courted big international sports events to improve its image abroad and the Grand Prix is no different.  While the world’s fastest drivers take to the streets of Baku in this spectacle of speed, there are many who will not be able to enjoy the show.

F1 is in pole position to influence positive change in Azerbaijan.  We would like to see them publicly urge President Aliyev to end this crackdown and free all prisoners of conscience.

Rebecca Vincent of Sport for Rights commented:

Bernie Ecclestone’s attitude to human rights is an embarrassment for Formula One.  The Sport For Rights coalition has repeatedly raised the cases of political prisoners in Azerbaijan with those in the F1 world, without anything resembling a sufficient response. The sport and its sponsors should be ashamed to allow themselves to be used as a propaganda tool for repressive governments such as President Aliyev’s.

They also claim that media outlets critical of Aliyev’s government have been harassed and intimidated and subsequently forced to close, while four journalists have also died in custody since 2005, according to Sport for Rights.

It all seems a long way from the Greek idea which informed their philosophy behind the idea of athletics and sporting prowess.  This philosophy was that the success of a democratic government depended on the moral character of the citizenry and sport was part of that philosophy.  This was a large part of the motivation for the combined athletic/moral training.  Now that sport is a business it only seems to matter who can pay the most.  Sport is now part of the apparatus of repression rather that something which uplifts the soul.  Thus any regime which oppresses its citizens and ignores human rights can host a football tournament, motor racing event or some other sporting attraction at will.  The people who take part in these events seem unconcerned at the misery which surrounds them and they are guaranteed uncritical coverage of their exploits in the media.