With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro only 99 days away, Brazil is a pressure cooker. The economy is in freefall, President Dilma Rousseff is embroiled in a vicious impeachment battle, the political class in Brazil has turned democracy into a game show and duelling protesters are filling the streets. Braided political and economic crises have overshadowed the Olympic circus maximus already hurtling toward the city.
Olympic preparations are lagging, so officials from the International Olympic Committee have rolled up their sleeves to help erect the circus tents. After the IOC’s coordination commission visit to Rio last week, one official admitted, “there are thousands of details still to manage.” But there’s one major task that the IOC should add to its list: securing peacekeepers from the United Nations to engage in human rights monitoring both in the lead-up, during and after the Rio games.
Rio 2016 organisers have vowed to flood the streets with police to keep the peace. The Rio Olympics will feature 85,000 security officials — twice as many as the 2012 London Games and just over half the number of US troops stationed in Iraq at the war’s peak. This massive force will secure the city for the IOC, bringing the latest weaponry and an antagonistic view toward protest.
Of course, security is required for an event of this magnitude. But in Rio, security forces are precisely the problem. A 2015 Amnesty International report revealed that Rio police had killed at least 1,500 people in the previous five years. Many of the deaths were “extrajudicial executions” occurring after the victim had surrendered or was already injured.
And Rio’s police also have a history of mass killings during sporting events. In the month leading up to the 2007 Pan American Games, police killed as many as 40 people in Rio’s Complexo do Alemão. During the 2013 Confederations Cup, police killed at least nine residents of the slum-like Maré favela complex and blasted bullets into the neighbourhood from helicopters. Enter the United Nations. These days UN peacekeepers don’t just engage in traditional missions intervening in inter-state conflict. They also carry out human rights monitoring, and this is exactly what is needed in Rio.
Last year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution call for a farcical global Olympic Truce for the Rio Olympics, despite the fact that such truces have been openly broken many times. Rio 2016 affords the IOC and UN a chance to align their lofty rhetoric with an actual policy that could matter. Brazilians have good reason to be upset. The city has been a construction site for seven years. The same companies at the rotten core of Brazil’s biggest-ever corruption scandal have been accused of building hasty, overpriced infrastructure projects. With all these grievances, protest during the games is quite possible. In fact, we should hope for protest since dissent is society’s safety valve.
The UN should send observers to Rio to guarantee that the Olympics promote, rather than curtail, human rights. Olympic history is chock-full of human rights violations, from the infamous massacre at the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico to the brutal street-sweeping in Seoul. There is no sign as yet South Korea will repeat those violations in preparation for the 2018 PyeongChang games, but protests in Japan have broken out already over evictions of homeless people from a park designated for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And with Beijing hosting the 2022 winter games, the presence of UN peacekeepers will be vital.
The IOC and UN should collaborate to guarantee human rights monitoring and an international peacekeeping force. By providing peacekeepers for all Olympic Games, the UN would offer trained, multilingual military personnel that would not take an antagonistic view toward local populations. If the Olympic Truce is to have any meaning at all, Olympic security should be run by peacekeepers, not military forces with a track record of repression. Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in the US, while Christopher Gaffney is a senior research fellow at the University of Zürich.
— Courtesy: USA Today