Sochi and Human Rights

I was going to write this the other day as a Facebook status update but it turned a bit epic, so I decided to come over here and write up my thoughts a bit more fully. I’ve been mulling it over for a day or 2 and as usual by the time I have got round to getting the old laptop out it is getting late and my brain is slowly turning to mush. But I’ll bash on regardless and hope it makes sense.

So, the Winter Olympics.  I’ll be watching.  I know all the criticisms about Russia. I will nevertheless still watch and refuse to feel guilty about not taking part in some kind of boycott.

Firstly – I support LGBT rights.  I support equality in general.  I have a degree in Politics and a Masters in Human Rights and have pretty much made my entire career working to secure people’s human rights, in various ways.  So I am confident that I know what I am talking about.

I know that Russia’s policies are appalling. I know that people are suffering and being victimised and that their dignity is being stripped by their own state which should protect them. I do not in any way condone what is happening, agree with it, want to trivialise or diminish this in any way.  I repeat, I support LGBT rights and the rights of people to live their lives loving whomever they chose.  I agree there should be protests, and campaigns and that every effort should be made to support LGBT people in Russia and to persuade the Russian authorities to cease and desist.

But I won’t let this stop me from watching the Winter Olympics.

Russia is not the first country with a dubious record in human rights to host a major international sporting event.  There were some horrendous stories coming out of China before the Beijing Olympics.  They got reported here, some people called for a boycott, but there was nothing like the storm of protest around Sochi.  Mainly because the poor, displaced, marginalised Chinese population doesn’t have many representatives here.  People here found it harder to empathise with them.  Or we didn’t quite understand their plight. They didn’t have rainbows.

The World Cup in South Africa had its share of stories beforehand too. Yet again, we may have signed a petition, or watched some news reports about slum clearances or trafficking of sex workers, but it didn’t touch us, our friends and our families in the way that gay rights does.

The LGBT cause is an easy one to support. We know what it stands for.  We can understand why it is an issue.  It is cool, especially among straight people.  We like the rainbows.

Other human rights issues that occur on a daily basis around the world aren’t quite so cool or easy to put on your Facebook page.  Female genital mutilation. Slavery.  Arms Trade.  Land rights.  Child soldiers.

The Sochi case is also a handy bandwagon to jump on because we are not likely to ever go to Russia. We can condemn their practices and “boycott” things all we like, most Brits will never set foot in the country.  But do you know how the LGBT community is treated in Turkey?  Egypt? Any other holiday destination you care to chose? We can conveniently ignore human rights issues when it suits us.

As was the case in China, the best thing we can do is highlight the issue, enter into dialogue and bring people together.  China and the West need more, closer relations in order to effect change.  Russia needs to see that gay people are normal.  That they can compete, and win, and that everyone around them is not “corrupted” by their presence.  The more Russian people that speak to gay people, and people who support gay rights the better.  That way lies understanding, communication, compassion and respect.

Sport has always been a great unifying factor. Football has been used to bring Catholic and Protestant kids together in Northern Ireland.  Nations divided on religious or ethnic grounds come together to support their national team play cricket.  To withdraw from events such as the Winter Olympics only divides us further when we should be joining to celebrate achievement and human endeavour.


If you don’t agree with what is happening in Russia, by all means do something about it.  Complaining on Twitter or Facebook isn’t enough.  It’s lazy campaigning that will have little or no impact.  And before you share or re-tweet a fact, report or story (not just on Russia / Sochi, on any issue) please check it for authenticity. A lot of what is floating around is just plain made up and is only there to collect “likes” or tweets for profit.

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