The Sochi Games and Human Rights: What Is the Responsibility of Corporate Sponsors?

February 3, 2014

Christine Bader, Human Rights Advisor, BSR

With the Winter Olympic Games about to kick off in Sochi, the role of corporate sponsors is under scrutiny—the new normal for major sporting events.

This time around, much of the attention is on what, if anything, Olympic corporate partners are doing to speak up for LGBTQI+ rights in Russia in light of domestic legislation banning “homosexual propaganda.”

Of course, the international community—companies included—should be fighting for equal rights for all. But before urging companies to turn their attention outwards and lobby host governments, we should seek evidence that they are addressing the risks to human rights in their own operations.

Major sporting events present a potential boon to the local economy and national pride. However, the costs of such events are often shouldered by the country’s—and the world’s—most vulnerable people.

Standards like the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights codify business’ responsibility to respect human rights. What does that mean specifically for companies involved in major sporting events?

  1. Companies that provide uniforms, equipment, and branded merchandise should have full visibility of their supply chains. Particularly with goods produced for a one-time event, where there might not be an extended relationship with a supplier, it might be tempting to ignore working conditions in favor of just getting this one order through. Brands have been called out in the past for how and where they’ve sourced Olympic uniforms, and following the Rana Plaza tragedy, public scrutiny continues to rise.
  2. Human Rights Watch has catalogued human rights abuses leading up to the Sochi Games, including the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of related facilities. Companies involved in infrastructure development should follow the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity. For example, they should make sure that wages are paid on time and in full, and that no passports or identity documents are retained.
  3. The travel and tourism sector should use available resources to ensure that they’re not facilitating human trafficking and child sex tourism. And visitors to Sochi might want to patronize those companies that have signed onto the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct.

Companies might want to refrain from lecturing others on their human rights practices until they have their own houses in order. Whether withdrawing from a collective body that is undermining their own more progressive positions, or making sure they practice what they preach, companies should engage in lobbying that is consistent with their own policies, commitments, strategy, and actions.

Human rights campaigners are right to seek every possible lever to pressure difficult governments. But we should all be watching the corporate sponsors and partners of major sporting events for not just what they say, but what they do.

Christine Bader is a human rights advisor to BSR and author of the forthcoming The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. Follow her on Twitter @christinebader.

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