Transcript 2008 Wilberforce Lecture Bernard O'Hear

Print this article

China: The Year Of The Human Rights Olympics


By BERNARD O’HEAR, Amnesty International

[Slide of Amnesty candle projected on screen behind speaker]
Good evening ladies and gentlemen and thank you for giving up this summer evening, if not quite summer sunshine, to come and listen to me. I am greatly honoured to have been invited to give this year’s Hull Wilberforce lecture, on the subject of China and human rights in this Olympic Year. I have called this year’s Games, “the human rights Olympics” and so they have been. Amnesty International has taken the opportunity presented by previous Olympic Games to highlight the human rights records of host countries – Spain, South Korea, the Soviet Union, the USA – but the significance of this Olympiad goes far beyond any of its predecessors in the effect the Games have exerted on the status of human rights and universal values in the wider World. And this time that effect has been entirely negative.

The resulting loss of standing for human rights globally is not just because one fifth of the human species remains subject to a dispensation where human rights are not respected at all, indeed where the government is hostile to the very idea of human rights and the rule of law. And not just because that government promised that human rights would improve in China as a result of the Olympic Games being held there, when in fact the opposite has happened. No, the real, substantial and global loss of stature for human rights has happened because the governments, corporations and institutions that could and should have exerted serious pressure on China to improve its human rights record in the years leading up to the Olympics chose not to do so. They decided that human rights were less important than currying diplomatic favour, making money, or even just gaining the prospect of making money. No one was prepared to incur the displeasure of the Chinese government, for fear of upsetting the all-important economic relationship. I will be saying more about that later.

The already very poor human rights situation obtaining in China got worse in most respects in the run-up to the Olympics, and in large part because of the Olympics. Whatever else was won in Beijing, human decency came in last and, in fact, was stretchered out of the stadium. Cynicism, cowardice and greed were the real victors – and repression the laureate of the Games.

What then is the human rights situation in China? Well, there is no type of human rights violation that is not to be found there. And all of the most serious abuses are carried out systematically and extensively.