Posts Tagged ‘sport’


The news today of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is condemned by Amnesty

It was announced today (7 October 2021) that the Saudi Public Investment Fund has agreed a £300m takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. This has resurrected the argument about ‘Sportswash’ and countries with poor human rights records using sport to try and create a better image for themselves. Saudi Arabia has a particularly dire human rights record with the routine use of torture, capital punishment often by primitive means and in public, the poor treatment of women and the silencing of opposition to the regime.

The takeover has been welcomed in Newcastle and it was suggested by a reporter in the City that the fans were jubilant as it will mean the end of Mike Ashley’s ownership and the poor record by the club in the league during his time. Newcastle Chronicle has considerable coverage and photos of large numbers of jubilant fans. The newspaper describes the atmosphere as ‘electric’. On Twitter a tweet said it was about ‘returning a sense of pride’.

Newcastle is not the only football club or sport to accept money from dubious regimes so it would be unfair to single them out. Saudi’s human rights record is particularly dubious however. The list is long and includes the likely murder and dismemberment by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, the repression of dissidents and human rights defenders, several members of the royal family are still held incommunicado and there is no freedom of religion other than Islam.

Yemen is also a stain on the country with nearly 8,000 killed in air raids including 2,000 children. There is a blockade in place adding to the misery in the country.

Newcastle supporters can also claim that our own royal family and senior ministers have frequently visited the country and are on visible and seemingly good terms with Mohammed bin Salman. The UK is also a major supplier of weapons to the regime, despite evidence of the harm done in their use. To condemn the deal is, they might argue, hypocritical. The Saudis also own considerable real estate in London.

While all this is true, there is no escaping the reality of a terrible regime buying a famous football club to enable it to enhance its image in the world. Although the fans seem delighted with the decision, it remains the case that the money is tainted and from a particularly dire regime.


The use of sport to sanitise regimes with atrocious human rights records may be increasing

The use of sport and ‘sports wash’ to give favourable publicity to regimes engaged in a range of human rights abuses is probably on the increase and has been particularly noticeable this year.  Sport is now a major international business and involves huge amounts of money.  Some sport is international in scope and has audiences numbered in the millions.  With such a captive audience, it is small wonder that countries who want to sanitise their reputations and present wholesome images of themselves, turn to sport to deliver those images.

Sport is also closely connected with the media and there are sometimes frenzied negotiations to get rights to publish or transmit sporting events.  With so much invested in securing rights and harvesting the advertising which goes with it, there is little time, space or inclination to question too much what goes on behind the scenes.  Sports pages live at the back of most newspapers and exist in a kind of private world.  Pages of dramatic photos of footballers, cricketers, rugby players and others are displayed seemingly detached from the rest of the world.

Abuses are many and include the terrible conditions workers endure building stadia in the Gulf for the football world cup.  Athletes themselves are subject to abuse by their trainers and coaches and British Cycling has been subject to allegations of this kind by a whistle-blower.  Drugs have been a perennial problem and infect many sports.

In recent years, we have seen more examples of sports wash.  We featured the attempt by Saudi Arabia to fund the Newcastle Football Club as part of its campaign to present a better image of the country.  A feature of that campaign was the encouragement it received from the the club’s supporters.

Holding this rally is ‘grotesque’

 

Today (6 January 2021), attention has focused on the Dakar rally which will pass close to the prison where Loujain al-Hathloul is held for campaigning for the right of women to drive.  The regime has been going through some contortions to get itself out of a PR mess of its own making.  The threat to imprison her for a lengthy jail term were dropped and with suspended sentences she should be released in a few months.  Loujain was kidnapped, held without access to a lawyer and tortured.  The rally is organised by the Amaury Sports Organisation whose website does not appear to make claims about human rights adherence.

A tweet from Grant Liberty says:

It is utterly grotesque that at the same time Saudi authorities will host a motor sport event — including women drivers — the heroes that won their right to drive languish in jail.  5 January 

Loujain’s sister said in a tweet:

No-one should be fooled by the Saudi regime’s attempts at sportswashing … Racers might not know it, but their participation there is to hide and whitewash the host’s crimes.  Lina al-Hathloul, Loujain’s sister 5 January

These trends suggest that sport needs to take greater interest in human rights and what is happening in the countries they compete in.  If they are being used to sanitise the reputation of regimes who torture, arrest opposition leaders, human rights defenders, lawyers and generally ignore the human rights of their citizens, they must ask themselves ‘is this what sport is for?’  Huge interest was generated when the footballer Marcus Rashford was influential in forcing the government to change its mind over school meals.  In some areas therefore, sport is beginning to use its power and its huge following to effect change.

But all too often, the lure of big money and a willingness to look the other way, seems to be the prevailing ethos.

 

 


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.


Plans by a consortium funded by Saudi Arabia to purchase Newcastle United come under attack

Anyone who has followed the Yemen conflict or is the least bit aware of human rights around the world, will know of Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on this front.  For five years they have waged a brutal war in Yemen leaving the country a wreck and many thousands dead.  We have frequently described their activities in previous blogs on this site. Their bombing of civilian targets is a disgrace as is the process of what is called ‘double tapping’ that is, circulating round after an attack on a hospital, school or wedding, and returning for a second round of bombing to kill the rescue workers.  That the RAF is involved in this activity – supposedly ‘advising’ the Saudis – is a stain on the UK’s international reputation.

Their human rights record is appalling.  Torture is common and confessions extracted using the process used to justify executions.  Death by beheading in public displays are the norm.  Women’s rights are severely restricted despite the promised reforms.  Human rights activists are regularly targeted and of course there is the murder of Adnam Kashoggi who was almost certainly dismembered after his death by Saudi personnel.

Now they want to purchase Newcastle United football club via the Public Investment Fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the sum of £500m is mentioned in a deal.

Kate Allen, Amnesty’s Director said:

Amnesty UK director Kate Allen said in a separate letter to Masters [chief executive of the Premier League]: “So long as these questions [about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record] remain unaddressed, the Premier League is putting itself at risk of becoming a patsy of those who want to use the glamour and prestige of Premier League football to cover up actions that are deeply immoral, in breach of international law and at odds with the values of the Premier League and the global footballing community”.

She suggests that Newcastle fans to familiarise themselves with the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia before the deal goes ahead.  For many fans, their chief desire is to see a new owner to replace Mike Ashley, the current one.

Saudi Arabia has been trying, unsuccessfully so far, to improve its image and using ‘sports wash’ is part of that plan.  The sums of money are huge and it appears that sports people are unconcerned at the source of the money or how tainted it is before accepting and cashing in the cheques.

The country is the major overseas purchaser of our arms exports.  Royalty have been frequently pressed into service as part of the charm offensive.  Unsurprisingly, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden MP said it was a ‘matter for the Premier League’ and the government is unlikely to intervene.

Football is big business and the sums paid to players and their transfer fees can be stratospheric.  Players are hugely influential and many young people see them as heroes.  Although players are not involved in this transaction directly, they will ultimately benefit from it financially.

To quote Jonathan Lieu writing in the Guardian:

And so, welcome to the new orthodoxies of English football.  Saudi Arabia is good.  Amnesty International is bad.  New signings are more important than murder, broadcast rights more important than women’s rights, and a basic sense of humanity is ultimately expendable if you can scrape into next season’s Europa League.  It’s a manifesto, to be sure.  Just don’t expect anyone with a scintilla of decency to feel warmly about it.  (23 April 2020)

Sources: Guardian, BBC, CNN

 


Arsenal football club embroiled in an embarrassing human rights dispute

The UK’s Arsenal football club became embroiled in an embarrassing and potentially expensive dispute with the Chinese authorities this week concerning the statement made by one of its footballers, Mesut Özil. The problem arose because Mesut, a Muslim, said on Instagram, concerning the plight of the Uighurs in China:

East Turkestan, the bleeding wound of the Ummah, resisting against the persecutors trying to separate them from their religion. They burn their Qurans. They shut down their mosques. They ban their schools. They kill their holy men. The men are forced into camps and their families are forced to live with Chinese men. The women are forced to marry Chinese men. But Muslims are silent. They won’t make a noise. They have abandoned them. Don’t they know that giving consent for persecution is persecution itself?

Sport, money, human rights, politics brought together in one place


Sport being used to whitewash unsavoury regimes

When we turn to our sports pages, we expect to read about who is beating Britain at cricket, the latest in the long-running saga of the English football team or Andy Murray’s latest exploits on the tennis courts.  We do not expect to read about human rights or to see quotes from organisations like Human Rights Watch or this one – Amnesty.  They are to be found on the news pages surely.

But on Tuesday 18 July, the Guardian in the UK devoted nearly two whole pages in its sports section to the sponsorship by Bahrain of a range of sporting activities and sportsmen in an effort to create a more favourable image for itself.

And it needs to.  The country has a quite appalling record of human rights abuses.  These include torture, in particular beatings and the use of electric shocks.  Freedom of assembly has been severely restricted and peaceful protests have been violently put down.  Nabeel Rajaab – a human rights defender is in prison.

Alan Hogarth, head of policy and government affairs for Amnesty said:

It seems pretty clear that the Bahraini authorities have stepped up efforts to associate the country with major sporting events as glitzy cover for an ever-worsening human rights crackdown.  For the most part, Bahrain’s harnessing of the glamour and prestige of sport has helped deflect attention from the arrests of peaceful critics, reports of tortured detainees, unfair trials and death sentences.

But you would not know this from the sports pages where all is glamour and excitement.  Pictured is the Olympic gold winner

Alistair Brownlee. Pic nztri.co.nz

Alistair Brownlee – featured in the Guardian article – promoting a Bahrain sponsored event.  Other sports include F1 motor racing, football with FIFA siting its conference in the country and cycling.  Spokesmen for the various organisations involved in laundering Bahrain’s image claim that they are not competent authorities to assess the human rights violations taking place there.  There are also claims that the sporting activities will help overcome the problems.  This might have a grain of truth if during coverage, human rights issued were raised by commentators.  Of that there has been no sign.

Bahrain cycling team colours. Photo; Bettini

Their promotional activities are not limited to sport as members of the UK’s Royal family have been pressed into service.  Her majesty the Queen herself welcomed King Hamad to the Royal Windsor horse show and there are pictures of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew with various members of the Bahraini royal family.

We do not have to look far for reasons for this rolling out of the red carpet for members of this royal family as it is our old friend arms sales which are behind it.  It led Theresa May to visit the country last year.  As CAAT reports we are keen to foster arms sales there including Typhoon jets and we have established a naval base at Mina Salman.  Defence clearly trumps human rights considerations.

At present, the sportsmen and women can collect their fees and promotional monies free in the knowledge that the majority of those reading of their sporting achievements probably do not concern themselves too much with goes on in the countries like Bahrain and how they treat their own citizens.  And only rarely do the stories touch on these matters since sport seems to exist in a kind of box as far the rest of coverage is concerned.  Sport, money and politics are now closely entwined.  Sports stars enjoy huge acclaim and some have a large fan base.  They have huge influence over the young who spend large sums on their merchandise.  This is a big responsibility.

But is it too much to ask that sporting people should have a conscience and should be concerned that their names and images are being used to hide serious abuses taking place?  Where a regime such as Bahrain is using sport to whitewash its reputation then sporting people should be aware of the role they are playing and the harm they are doing.  Should they not be concerned that they are being used by these regimes?


An Amnesty post on this topic

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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.