Vattenfall to raise Sochi human rights concerns

Swedish state-owned energy giant and Olympic sponsor Vattenfall has promised to raise human rights concerns with the Swedish Olympic Committee, yet critics say it must use its European clout to put pressure on Russia.

Vattenfall to raise Sochi human rights concerns
Swimmer and Olympic torch bearer Natalia Usacheva in Krasnoyarsk. File:

"Human rights are not mentioned in the Olympic Charter, or any other central IOC document, and the International Olympic Committee doesn't take any human rights issues into its decision about which country or city is to host the games," said CSR expert Erik Jennische at the organization Swedwatch. "Nor do they have any follow up after the games." 

In a wide-ranging report into the matter, Swedwatch said Vattenfall representatives had pledged to raise human rights concerns with the Swedish Olympic Committee. The report noted that Vattenfall had internal corporate social responsibility (CSR) guidelines that it had so far failed to discuss with the game organizers. The same held true for banking giant Nordea.

On January 9th, Vattenfall Sweden's account tweeted "Human rights are always an important question, also in our role as sponsor. We will take the matter into consideration more in the future."
Swedwatch's Jennische, however, said he hoped that as a key European energy market player, Vattenfall would extend its concern in its roles as a main sponsor to the German and Dutch Olympic Committees. The Swedish company's reach gave it unprecedented potential clout to exert influence, Jennische argued. Vattenfall did not rule out the possibility of reaching further.

"We're going to start with Sweden, but we are absolutely open to entering this debate in Germany and the Netherlands," Vattenfall Sweden sponsorship head Annika Bränning told The Local on Monday. She said Vttenfall would meet with the two other major sponsors – bank Nordea and betting firm ATG – and the roster of smaller sponsors, but that a date had not yet been set.

Bränning credited Swedwatch's report for kick-starting the debate.

In an op-ed in published in the Dagens Nyheter (DN) last week, Swedwatch joined forces with Swedish unions and LGBT rights groups to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for undermining the right to assembly, among many other offences. The highly critical piece also took aim at Russia's much criticized law that bans "propaganda" of homosexuality to minors. It also tied human rights abuses specifically to preparations ahead of the winter games.

"Migrant workers' rights have been violated while stadiums and arenas have been built," the op-ed noted. "Sochi-based organizations and medias freedom of expression has been curtailed." 

While influencing the IOC structurally could prove difficult as its 115 delegates are internally appointed rather than elected, the games rely fully on sponsorship – giving the companies and their clients the chance to influence the administration of the games, Jennische hoped, as – "the IOC has no other sources of financing but its sponsors". 

"Money talks," he said. 

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