Letter to Olympic Federation of Ireland

Dear Ms Keane,

We write to you as concerned members of the Oireachtas in relation to the 2022 Winter Olympics, due to take place next February in Beijing and at locations in the nearby Heibei province in China.

As you know, sport plays a vitally important role in our world. Central to the Olympic spirit is that principles of fair play, mutual respect, and friendly competition can bridge social and cultural divides. This is well summarised in the Olympic Charter which states that:

The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

We believe that this noble goal will be gravely undermined by China’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics – in the light of the deteriorating human rights situation in China, especially the mass incarceration and coercion of China’s Uighur minority. The scale of China’s human rights abuses demands a serious international response.

China is on the brink of becoming the world’s greatest power. Never in modern history has a regime so violative of human rights and human dignity held such economic and military influence on a global scale. China’s abuse of human freedom has many faces: its oppression of Tibet, its dismantling of democracy and civil liberties in Hong Kong, its widespread persecution of various religious faiths within its borders, its systematic monitoring of its own people, its restriction on the normal exchange of information and its punishment of political dissent. However, China’s treatment of its Uighur minority in Xinjiang province is perhaps the most frightening aspect of all, because of the sheer scale of the atrocity being perpetrated.

Treatment of Uighur minority

Investigations by a number of media outlets, including reporting by RTÉ journalist Yvonne Murray, have shown that the Uighur minority is being systematically persecuted as a matter of Chinese state policy. China fears the growth of cultural and political separatism within its borders and its response is to use force in an attempt to eradicate cultural and ethnic difference.

Incredibly, at least one million people – some 10% of the Uighur population in Xinjiang – have been imprisoned in what are effectively concentration camps. This imprisonment, for the purpose of ‘re-education’, has seen families broken up, children separated from their parents, and people subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment aimed at forcing them to reject their culture. Women have been forcibly sterilised, fitted with contraceptive devices against their wishes and coerced to terminate their pregnancies – all in pursuit of a policy to systematically reduce the Uighur population.

The Chinese government in Beijing denied the existence of these camps for a number of years. However, since incontrovertible evidence emerged of the camps and the abuses perpetrated within them, China has persisted in its policy of detention and coercion.

How China views the Olympics

Many claim that the continuation of diplomatic, trade and sporting links with China can influence the country towards becoming a more liberal democracy and a responsible international actor. However, a contrary pattern is emerging. China is using its economic power to construct an international order that aligns with its own interests. Its diplomatic strategy is to gain economic leverage over other nations, and to pressurise trade-conscious and economically-dependent nations to give tacit validation to its conduct within its borders and internationally.

China sees the 2022 Winter Olympics within the framework of this diplomatic strategy. The prestige associated with hosting the Winter Olympics contributes to a relativising of its human rights abuses and to a normalisation of its policies.

Democratic and open societies must avoid doing anything that would facilitate or collaborate with this agenda in any way.

I hope you will agree that it would be entirely wrong for Ireland or Irish athletes to partake in any event which might be used by the Chinese government for propaganda purposes or which might give comfort to the Chinese regime that its abuse of its own people carries no consequences internationally.

The appropriate response

For that reason, we urge the OFI to engage with this serious international problem and to support a number of different propositions:

  • The 2022 Winter Olympics should take place in another country

There is already a substantial movement internationally for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be moved to another venue, with debates ongoing at political level in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia.

We would urge the OFI to lead the charge internationally for the games to be moved to a more suitable venue.

  • Ireland should boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics

Should China remain as host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, we would urge you to support an outright boycott of the Games. A coalition of 180 human rights organisations and associations which campaign on behalf of the rights of the Uighurs and of the citizens of Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong, have already supported calls for a boycott.

  • Irish athletes should participate on a non-aligned basis only.

As Oireachtas members, we do not make the above proposals lightly. We are conscious of the huge sacrifices that our athletes have made and we want to see them compete at the highest levels, at every available opportunity, and to achieve success both for themselves and for Ireland. To become an Olympian is a stellar achievement, and even having the right to represent Ireland at an Olympics signifies that a person has reached the pinnacle of their sport. For that reason, it would be with great reluctance that we would urge you to consider a full boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, because of the potential impact on the individual sportspeople involved and their careers. However, given the sheer gravity of the conduct of the Chinese government, it is simply not tenable for no clear protest to be made on behalf of Irish sport and the Irish people. Therefore, failing a full boycott by Ireland we urge you to explore the possibility of Irish athletes participating in the games but not under the Irish flag and with no official Irish delegation attending the events.

This would allow Ireland to register a protest about the conduct of the Beijing government. It would deny the Chinese authorities both of access to Irish officials and of an opportunity to use to use the Games in furtherance of their diplomatic aims.

We know that the OFI is proud of its commitment to human rights, and we note that you marked the UN International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. However, the situation of China and its oppressed people is too serious to ignore, and we now urge you to act decisively in support of human rights and in defence of human dignity.

We would be happy to meet with you or your board to discuss these issues further.

Yours sincerely,

Senator Rónán Mullen, Independent

Senator Michael McDowell, Independent

Senator Sharon Keogan, Independent

Senator Victor Boyhan, Independent

Senator Denis O’Donovan, Independent

Senator David Norris, Independent

Senator Lynn Ruane, Independent

Deputy John Paul Phelan TD, Fine Gael

Deputy Padraig O Suilleabhain TD, Fianna Fáil

Senator Malcolm Byrne, Cultural and Educational Panel

Deputy Seán Canney TD, Independent

Senator Diarmuid Wilson, Fianna Fáil

Deputy Richard O Donoghue TD, Independent

Deputy Carol Nolan, Independent