11 October 2022

IOC adds Human Rights Punch to the Lex Olympica

The IOC’s Strategic Framework on Human Rights

On 9 September 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) published its long-awaited “Strategic Framework on Human Rights” (Framework), two years after Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, former United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Rachel Davis, Vice-President and Co-Founder of Shift (the non-profit organisation aimed at promoting the diffusion of the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights) had produced at the invitation of the IOC a set of recommendations for an IOC human rights strategy. The new Framework presents an overarching approach as well as concrete action plans for the IOC to address their human rights risks along three spheres of responsibility: the IOC as an organisation, the IOC as owner of the Olympic Games, and the IOC as leader of the Olympic Movement. This blog aims to present the content of the Framework, assess to what extent it follows the 2020 recommendations of the Hussein/Davis report, and provides a critical assessment of its potential to have a transformative impact on the way in which the Olympic Movement operates. It highlights both the potential of the Framework to change the way the IOC operates and the Olympics are organised and the many unknowns remaining regarding its actual transformative impact and concrete implementation in practice.

What is in the IOC’s Strategic Framework?

The Framework starts by showcasing the IOC’s claimed contributions to human rights, starting with a timeline of its human rights journey from 1956 until 2021 (p. 5&6) and continuing with a detailed account of how Olympic Agenda 2020 and Olympic Agenda 2020+5 are related to human rights. Interestingly, it clarifies that “In order to fulfil the goal of Olympism, all constituents of the Olympic Movement need to respect internationally recognised human rights within their respective remit”  early on and affirms its commitment to the United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as the IOC’s “standard of reference” and continuous human rights due diligence [HRDD].

The IOC’s three “Spheres of responsibility”

The following three spheres of responsibility based on the different functions of the IOC are distinguished:

  • the IOC as an organisation covering its governance work and the daily operations of its administration;
  • the IOC as owner of the Olympic Games, which involves both the election of Future Hosts and the organisation and delivery of the Olympic Games;
  • and the IOC as leader of the Olympic Movement, which oversees the International Federations and the National Olympic Committees, as well as the many athletes affiliated to them.

The Framework defines “2030 strategic intents” for each one of these spheres. The IOC as organisation is to continuously advance “respect for human rights across its operations, through enhanced policies and practices, in alignment with the UNGPs”, as owner of the Olympic Games it is to drive “human rights best practices in the selection of Future Hosts, and in the organisation and delivery of the Olympic Games”, and as leader of the Olympic Movement it is to accelerate “the adoption, by IFs and NOCs, of pro-active measures on human rights-related challenges”.

The IOC’s focus areas and target populations

The IOC commits expressly to respecting (within its remit) “all internationally recognised human rights” and identifies focus areas “designed to translate internationally recognised human rights standards into clearly defined areas of engagement for the IOC’s human rights efforts”. They are supposed to cover the IOC’s most salient human rights risks and include: equality and non-discrimination, safety and well-being, livelihood and decent work, voice, and privacy.

The Framework identifies as well the target populations of the IOC’s human rights responsibility, the “groups of people who are directly contributing to IOC operations or are impacted by them“, including: Athletes; IOC, National Olympic Committees, Olympic Games Organizing Committees (OCOGs), and International Federations (IFs) workforce; Workers in supply and value chains; and Olympic-related communities, people who are involved in or impacted by Olympic-related operations (such as accredited media, spectators and fans, and communities affected by the Games).

The IOC’s 16 human rights objectives to be achieved by 2024

The fourth part of the IOC’s Framework is dedicated to the presentation of a total of 16 detailed objectives for 2024 connected to different spheres of responsibility.

For the IOC as an organisation, the objectives related to governance include: adopting a human rights commitment in the Olympic Charter, updating the “Basic Principles of Good Governance”, setting up a Human Rights Advisory Committee, and developing internal capacity on the UNGPs and the framework.

In terms of the IOC’s workforce, it plans to review relevant policies in line with the human rights commitment and the UNGPs. Regarding responsible sourcing, the IOC intends to promote adherence to relevant social and environmental standards, including within its relationships with suppliers, licensees and sponsors.

Regarding its position as the owner of the Olympic Games including the Youth Olympic Games, the IOC plans to revise the processes of selecting and engaging with future hosts, including revised questionnaires and clearer expectations. For the events itself, it intends to

  • gather and assess more information on the human rights situation in hosting countries,
  • support the OCOG with risk assessment and stakeholder engagement,
  • and strengthen the protection of athletes and their entourage participating in these events, through improving safeguarding and reporting mechanisms.

Finally, as part of the IOC’s role as leader of the Olympic Movement, its first objective is to persuade other NOCs and IFs to address their own human rights impacts. It also to foresees improving the athlete representation model and specifically in relation to athletes from vulnerable groups. The IOC intends as well to support IFs and NOCs in revising and strengthening their safeguarding efforts and work together with experts to fill gaps and identify opportunities for promoting and respecting the rights of child athletes. The final objectives concern inclusion and athletes’ livelihoods, and the IOC commits to promoting the Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination, deepening their own and NOCs’ and IFs’ understanding of athletes’ livelihoods, and supporting the implementation of the Athletes Declaration.

Making it happen: The IOC’s implementation plan

The Framework ends with a brief outline of how these objectives can be achieved in practice. In this regard, it emphasises, first, the existing human rights commitments included in the Olympic Charter, the IOC Code of Ethics, and the Basic Universal Principles of Good Governance. Secondly, it introduces a human rights management system that links the Human Rights Advisory Committee and the Human Rights Unit with other IOC departments. More specifically it underlined the key role of the Human Rights Unit in collaborating with the IOC’s Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer and with Internal Control Unit in the Ethics and Compliance Department. For its part, the Advisory Committee is to provide strategic advice and recommendations to the IOC President and Executive Board on how to meet the IOC’s human rights responsibilities.

In implementing its goals, the IOC commits as well to collaborating and partnering with “expert stakeholders” and to engage with ”legitimate representatives of affected stakeholders and credible proxies for their views, including civil society organisations and other relevant experts”. Furthermore, it will publish every two years (starting in 2024) an IOC Human Rights Report which will follow the UN Guiding Principles Reporting Framework. Additionally, the IOC’s internal auditors are called upon to provide an “objective review of the effectiveness of the processes established as part of the Human Rights Strategic Framework”. In order to enable stakeholders’ confidence in the entire process, the IOC commits to “seek independent assurance of its human rights reporting and programme achievements”. Finally, the IOC commits to reviewing the Human Rights Strategic Framework every four years.

How does the Framework live up to the recommendations?

In their 2020 report, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein and Rachel Davis had recommended to the IOC to adopt “A Strategic Framework on Human Rights […] Aligned with UN Standards” (p.11), and with “specific objectives, activities and targets” (p.24). The IOC clearly follows that recommendation, through committing to human rights and the UNGPs, identifying clear objectives and action points, and setting a target of achieving those by 2024. Most of these objectives and actions are in line with what was recommended, in particular regarding the administrative and logistical set-up of relevant processes and entities, such as the functioning of the Human Rights Unit, conducting human rights due diligence and committing to stakeholder engagement where relevant.

However, on closer, look some deviations can be found. For instance, while the IOC adopted the division of the responsibility into three spheres proposed by Davis and Al Hussein, the focus areas deviate slightly from the challenges they identified (p.7-10), and seem to concentrate more on the challenges for the IOC as the leader of the Olympic Movement and owner of the Olympic Games, while side-lining to a certain extent the challenges related to the IOC’s own organization and administrative activities, such as human rights issues within the IOC’s supply chain for instance related to their uniforms, and other human rights risks with business partners. Furthermore, while the recommendations are clear on the fact that embedding and respecting human rights are not the same as traditional management processes, the Framework presents this type of governance as the main way to achieve its objectives. The biggest deviation seems to exist in relation to the recommendations on remedy. The recommendations were calling on the IOC to strengthen the remedy ecosystem by using its leverage over other actors or mechanisms and ensuring that its own mechanisms, such as reporting mechanisms and ethics and integrity complaint systems, are fit for purpose (p.37). Yet, the Strategic Framework is largely silent about remedy efforts and does not propose any institutional reforms of the IOC’s internal ethics and review bodies. There is also no mention whatsoever of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), while the recommendations clearly addressed the need to review its capacity to deal with human rights cases.

Human rights talk, but now comes the walk

The Framework is neither a detailed outline of a human rights policy, nor a statutory commitment to human rights, and does not bind the IOC, legally speaking, to human rights standards. Nevertheless, some of its commitments can probably be invoked, for example before the CAS, to support human-rights compatible interpretations of the Olympic Charter or the application of human rights standards in disputes involving the IOC. The Framework constitutes a roadmap for what the IOC plans to do to embed human rights into its policies and processes. Moreover, by formulating clear actions and targets it gives civil society the opportunity to monitor the IOC’s achievements and to hold it accountable, mainly in the courts of public opinion, if it fails to fulfil its ambitions. The promised regular revisions of the Framework and public reporting on the IOC’s human rights efforts will also be helpful in that regard. Finally, the way the different IOC departments are now linked with the Human Rights Unit might accelerate the diffusion of human rights standards internally, while the establishment of the Human Rights Advisory Committee could reinforce the critical scrutiny of the IOC’s human rights commitments and impacts.

The promise to amend the Olympic Charter to “better articulate human rights responsibilities” (Action 1.1, p.27) can have considerable legal consequences, depending on the outcome and wording of that amendment. It could open up widely the possibility to challenge before the CAS the decisions of the IOC, and beyond of the members of the Olympic movement, on the basis of human rights. This is not, per se, a guarantee that the CAS, which has until now engaged in a very benevolent review of decisions of SGBs on the basis of human rights, will actively embrace this opportunity. Nevertheless, it is a necessary condition for human rights to be more systematically employed to hold accountable the members of the Olympic Movement and challenge their policies. As such, it does not, however, solve other issues, such as the question whether rights-holders external to the Olympic Movement but potentially adversely impacted by it have legal standing under the Olympic Charter (this problem has been discussed in more detail here). Unfortunately, the strategy also does not say much about alternative ways for rights-holders to claim their rights and access remedies. It does not include the objective to remedy human rights harms and instead only the plan to strengthen existing reporting mechanisms in the context of safeguarding (Action 8.1, p.35).

Ultimately, it is uncertain at this point whether this Strategic Framework will mark a fundamental point of inflexion in the way in which the IOC governs the Olympic Movement and awards and oversees the organization of the Olympic Games. While on paper it contains many commitments which could affect the governance processes of the organisation, much will depend in practice on how these commitments will be implemented. Will the IOC dedicate the necessary resources and rewards for human rights to be taken seriously inside its organisation? How will the IOC conduct HRDD? Who will be consulted (and how) in the process of doing this HRDD? Will the IOC’s Human Rights Advisory Committee be sufficiently independent to hold it accountable? If yes, will it have the space and time necessary to be effective or will it soon be dismantled like the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board? Will the human rights criteria to select host cities really gain bite or will they remain merely incantations? Can these human rights commitments overcome the fundamental governance flaws that plague the IOC, and in particular the lack of democratic legitimacy and representativeness of its executives? Time and research will help answer many of these questions.

For now, we can say for sure that after the publication of this framework it will be increasingly difficult to argue that human rights are not part of lex sportiva and applicable to SGBs, as for example the World Athletics did after the Caster Semenya award. A few years ago, the late Prof. John Ruggie referred to his work advising FIFA to adopt and implement human rights commitments as “adding human rights punch to the lex mercatoria”, he probably should have referred in his title to lex sportiva. In any event, the IOC’s Strategic Framework follows a similar path, the fundamental question being how strong the punch will ultimately be.


SUGGESTED CITATION  Duval, Antoine; Heerdt, Daniela: IOC adds Human Rights Punch to the Lex Olympica: The IOC’s Strategic Framework on Human Rights, VerfBlog, 2022/10/11, https://verfassungsblog.de/ioc-adds-human-rights-punch-to-the-lex-olympica/, DOI: 10.17176/20221011-230553-0.