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Gold Medal Dictatorships in Rio

Article by Christopher Walsh and Ashley McConkey August 15, 2016 //   4 minute read

The Olympic Games are powerful.  Through waving flags and national anthems, they ignite countrywide pride in a way that few things do.  Unfortunately, authoritarian leaders can use the spectacle of the Games and its incredible athletes to soften perceptions of how their countries operate.

Those of us in free societies have a responsibility to pull back the rosy, Olympic veil and be more discerning of countries competing in the Games that have no regard for freedom, human rights, and global security. If we don’t, these regimes gain a sense of legitimacy within the international community.

Each year, Freedom House releases its Freedom in the World report, a comprehensive analysis that grades countries as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free” based on their people’s political rights and civil liberties. Many countries ranked as “not free” are showcasing themselves in Rio and it’s important to see beyond the festive atmosphere and recognize how these regimes systematically trample basic rights, dignity, and international law. Here are some of the countries giving a “gold medal” effort to extinguish human freedom:

  • Cuba: As U.S.-Cuban relations thaw, there’s been optimism that the Castro regime would improve its deplorable human rights record. Unfortunately, the Cuban government remains opposed to basic freedoms. Reports show that politically-motivated arrests and short-term detentions have increased.  Peaceful dissidents like the Damas de Blanco are routinely harassed. Earlier this summer, Cuban freedom advocate Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was permitted to leave Cuba for the first time; he traveled to the Bush Center where he received his Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award originally given to him by President Bush in 2007 while he was a prisoner of conscience.
  •  North Korea: A selfie taken by gymnasts from North and South Korea, their countries still technically at war, received buzz for capturing the Olympic spirit. It begs the question though, is a country like North Korea that holds an estimated 130,000 political prisoners in gulags, executes citizens for possessing foreign media, and flaunts an illicit nuclear weapons program generally representative of the Olympic spirit?
  •  Russia: Freedom of expression is under attack in Russia as media outlets are consolidated under government control and independent journalists are physically attacked. Civil society is under constant scrutiny, particularly those associated with foreign NGOs. Moreover, the recently released McLaren Report exposed Russia’s contempt for fair competition through an extensive state-sponsored doping program. It’s unsurprising that Vladimir Putin would cheat the rest of the world in Rio, as Soviet-dissident Andrei Sakharov once said, “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.”
  •  Sudan: President Omar al-Bashir is a fugitive wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Beyond that, state-sponsored militias lash out against the Sudanese people. Corruption is rampant. Basic freedoms such as expression, religion, movement and assembly are squashed. This past February, the Bush Center hosted approximately 70 refugees known as Sudan’s Lost Boys and Girls who fled their country’s civil war as children in search of better futures.