Ali Iveson

The long-delayed United Nations (UN) report on China's Xinjiang province makes for grim reading, concluding "serious human rights violations have been committed" against the region's Uyghur Muslim population. Conveniently for all concerned - except of course those on the end of the abuse - it was published well after Beijing 2022.

The report by the UN's outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet details how allegations of sexual violence - including rape - forced sterilisations and "patterns of torture or ill-treatment, including forced medical treatment and adverse conditions of detention" are all "credible", among other abuses.

It condemns the anti-terrorism laws which Chinese authorities have used as an excuse for the detention of thousands of Uyghurs and others from predominantly Muslim communities as "deeply problematic" and concludes that China's actions in Xinjiang "may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity".

Nothing in the UN report should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the issue - one campaigners consistently sought to juxtapose to this year's Winter Olympics and Paralympics in China to raise awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its sponsors were also lobbied to use their influence, in the IOC's case to pressure China into change or move the event, and in the case of sponsors to pressure the IOC into lobbying China for change or moving the event. 

Of course Beijing 2022 was not moved - a Uyghur athlete was even used to deliver the Olympic Flame in the Opening Ceremony as China got to put out the manicured image it desired, concerning not just Xinjiang but also Peng Shuai, the tennis player who disappeared for weeks after accusing a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official of sexual assault.

The United Nations has concluded China has committed
The United Nations has concluded China has committed "crimes against humanity" in Xinjiang ©Getty Images

Peng reportedly retracted the allegations when she resurfaced but concern has been raised over her ability to speak freely. While the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) has withdrawn its business from China because of the case and wants a private meeting with Peng - something the Chinese will not grant - the IOC was involved in online meetings with Peng before she met President Thomas Bach during Beijing 2022, and was pictured at several events. IOC statements on its interactions with the tennis player conspicuously omitted any references to sexual assault and what Bach's meeting achieved is unclear if the starting point is not full acknowledging the issue, although beforehand the IOC leader said a meeting could "convince us in-person of her well-being and state of mind". It certainly gave more legitimacy to the Chinese state's line that there is nothing to see here - hence this public display.

Back to the UN report on Xinjiang, the IOC told insidethegames it had "taken note" of the findings, but insisted that "all obligations in the Host City contract were met" for Beijing 2022. Nothing to see here.

That it took so long to publish - the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says it began receiving "increasing allegations" of abuses of human rights in Xinjiang in late 2017 - is a matter for the UN. It being published on Bachelet's last day in office sends its own message. 

Whether earlier publication would have made any difference with regards the Winter Olympics we will never know, but even given the IOC's close ties to the UN it seems unlikely. Well-documented evidence of China's persecution of Uyghur Muslims was out there for anyone or any organisation willing to look.

However, now the report is out and gives more credence to allegations which probably no longer need to be described as such, the emphasis will be on other event organisers. Is this really the kind of country you want to partner with?

The International Table Tennis Federation, World Athletics, International University Sports Federation, Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and International World Games Association are organisations which should be asking that question, and it is impossible not to view staging an event in an authoritarian country such as China as entering into a partnership with the Government.

China is due to host several major events in the coming years, including the Asian Games ©Getty Images
China is due to host several major events in the coming years, including the Asian Games ©Getty Images

You would hope at this stage that we are passed organisations and officials claiming sport and politics should not mix as a justification for their inaction. Certainly the fact athletes from Russia and Belarus have been barred from events organised by all of the above, bar the OCA, over the war in Ukraine would massively undermine that reasoning.  

Could sport's surprisingly firm and principled stance to the Russian invasion of Ukraine perhaps inspire action with regards to China? 

The International Tennis Federation (ITF), curiously, is one of the few Olympic International Federations (IFs) not to have banned players from Russia and Belarus outright, although national teams have been suspended. The ITF stripped Wimbledon of ranking points after the Grand Slam forbid Russian and Belarusian players from entering, and its response to calls for it to suspend all tournaments in China because of the Peng case as the WTA did may be a sign of what is to come.

"We don't want to punish a billion people, so we will continue to run our junior events in the country and our senior events that are there for the time being," ITF President David Haggerty said in a December interview with the BBC. Prepare to hear that narrative with the frequency we heard Beijing 2022 inspired 300 million new winter sports participants in China.

Governments' dealings with China and multi-national businesses' trade there will also be used by some to absolve event organisers and IFs of individual responsibility for their decisions, much as this argument has been parroted in defence of golfers who have joined Saudi-backed LIV Golf. Perhaps that will work in the court of public opinion, although I doubt pointing to somebody else's misdeeds would be a good defence in a court of law.

COVID-19 could offer some a convenient way to get out of facing such questions, with China's border still largely closed and events in 2023 already being called off. That, the day after the UN report was published, World Athletics postponed Nanjing's staging of the World Athletics Indoor Championships to 2025, from 2023, following earlier delays when it was set for 2021 and 2020, rather than scrapping the whole thing, suggests this route will not be taken. But the combination of COVID-19 restrictions and the potential for further scrutiny on the attitudes of those staging events in China toward human rights may only push sport quicker in the direction of the Middle East, as my colleague David Owen wrote last month.

China's treatment of Uyghurs was a recurring talking point in the lead-up to Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images
China's treatment of Uyghurs was a recurring talking point in the lead-up to Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

Many prominent event hosts in the region have their own failings on human rights - be that Qatar's treatment of migrant workers, the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi ordered by the Saudi state, or the United Arab Emirates' continued detention in solitary confinement of Ahmed Mansoor, jailed on charges related to advocacy of human rights. 

There are, of course, few countries with spotless records on human rights. Be it huge debts Haiti was forced to pay French slaveholders and their descendants following independence, Italy's treatment of refugees, the legality and morality of wars the United States has embarked upon this century or Australia's long history of discrimination against the indigenous population, you can find issues with the next four confirmed Olympic Games hosts. You can even swap some of the crimes to go with a different country. Let the whataboutery commence.

But there must surely be a line, and if there is, how will event organisers square China being on the right side of it? China has shown no contrition over the treatment of Uyghurs or willingness to enact change, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson dismissing the UN report as "false information that serves as political tools for the US and other Western countries". The document itself makes frequent references to a lack of information made available by China.

China has been a valuable host of events for many IFs this century, so too Russia before the war in Ukraine put an end to that and so too the Middle East. Turkey, which is using the war in Ukraine to insert itself into the world's most pressing diplomatic issues while it pursues a brutal war against Kurdish factions, is another. 

If a lack of willing host alternatives which do not also open organisers up to criticism over human rights is a factor in them being less inclined to take China's crimes seriously, perhaps the better question to ask is why they cannot come up with event concepts which non-authoritarian countries will also queue up to host.