The head of Formula One says the organization is “proud to partner with Bahrainis” as he responded to criticism about the kingdom’s human rights record ahead of the first race in the Bahrain Grand Prix double header.
Last week, 30 British lawmakers said in a letter addressed to Carey that they were concerned the Bahrain GP was being “exploited” by the Bahraini government to “‘sportswash’ their human rights record.”
The cross-party group of MPs urged the organization to “use maximum leverage to compel Bahrain to: end suppression of protests against the race, secure redress for victims and ensure the rights of Bahraini citizens are defended.”
Rights groups have repeatedly criticized Bahrain for stamping out dissent, arresting critics of the government and violently quashing protests. In 2011, a popular uprising against the country’s leadership prompted a wave of arrests.
Andy Slaughter, a Labour Party MP, said F1’s “long silence … on the appalling human rights record of countries like Bahrain, which host lucrative races and sportswash their reputation while clamping down on their own citizens for the race period, becomes more noticeable and less defensible.”
Asked on Saturday by CNN’s Amanda Davies if those British MPs had got it wrong, F1 CEO Chase Carey said: “Yeah. I think we’ve been very clear about our commitment to human rights, we’re very clear about our cooperation and collaboration with our partners to improve and advance the human rights issues.
“So, you know, we’ve been quite clear and I think we’re proud of our commitment to human rights.”
‘Sportswashing’ is a term used to describe governments using high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world.
“The government of Bahrain takes the protection of its citizens’ human rights and freedom of expression extremely seriously, and this is explicitly protected by Bahrain’s constitution,” a government spokesperson told CNN in a statement.
“The Kingdom has a zero-tolerance policy towards mistreatment of any kind.
“The government has put in place a range of internationally-recognised safeguards to ensure human rights abuses do not occur, including a wholly independent Ombudsman – the first of its kind in the region – to oversee all complaints of mistreatment. The government is also clear that no one is, or can be, arbitrarily detained in Bahrain for expressing their political views.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its 2020 report that Bahrain’s human rights situation “remained dire” and “worsened” in 2019 compared to 2018. Amnesty International said that in 2019 “authorities escalated their efforts to stifle freedom of expression.”
The Bahrain GP has been part of F1’s schedule since 2004, except for in 2011 when it was canceled due to anti-government protests. This year, Bahrain is hosting grands prix on back-to-back weekends for the first time as part of the rescheduled 2020 season due to the pandemic. The second race is on December 6.
Last year, rights groups accused F1 of insensitivity to the plight of Bahraini activist Najah Yusuf, a critic of the F1 race.
They called for the race to be canceled and urged drivers, including Lewis Hamilton, to boycott it. Neither Hamilton nor any other drivers publicly addressed the concerns at the time and the race went ahead.
Yusuf was jailed by the government in 2017 and says she was detained and beaten for speaking out against the race on social media, which the Bahrain government denied.
She was released following a royal pardon in August 2019.
However, human rights groups again expressed concerns about the race taking place this year. One letter, signed by 17 separate organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, said the Bahrain GP is going ahead “despite continuing abuses against protestors who oppose the event.”
“First, we are very proud of our partnership here in Bahrain,” said Carey. “We’re proud to partner with Bahrainis … we’re not a political body. We’re not an investigative body.
“We have honest discussions with our partners … about our values and what’s important to us and we’re very comfortable in the alignment we have with the partners that we have around the world.”
British MP Slaughter called Carey’s response to the letter “a pretty lame response.”
“It is clear how their visit to Bahrain sanitizes the regime, but where is the evidence that they have drawn attention to the human rights abuses there?” he said.
“But it is worse than that, in gratitude to F1 for their patronage, Bahrain makes sure any potentially embarrassing internal opposition is suppressed for the period around the race, so far from being critical of any crackdown, F1’s presence in the country provokes one.”
Bahraini activists, such as Yusuf and Nabeel Rajab, believe the Bahrain GP is an attempt to portray a different image to the reality that those inside the kingdom face.
“The grand prix is an international sporting spectacle and a symbol of wealth and glamor, particularly for Bahrain’s ruling family,” Yusuf wrote in the Guardian last year.
“However, for me and my fellow Bahraini citizens, it is nothing but an annual reminder of our suffering in our fight against tyranny and repression.”
In 2012, Rajab, who was in prison last year partly due to posting tweets that criticized the race, said the Bahrain GP was “PR” for “the government or the oppressive ruling elite.”
‘Force for good’
Among other countries on the F1 calendar that human rights groups have raised concerns about are Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia.
Azerbaijan hosted its first Grand Prix in Baku back in 2017, while Saudi Arabia will be making its debut on the F1 schedule in 2021.
Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment, however both countries have previously denied allegations of ‘sportswashing.’
Saudi Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal wrote on Twitter that hosting the F1 race “coincides with the plans and goals of the kingdom’s vision 2030” and affirms the country’s “value and position … regionally and globally.”
A tweet from the Ministry of Sports account said hosting the race shows the Kingdom’s commitment to “providing more events and activities that would improve the quality of life for the citizens and residents.”
“We’re a global sport,” Carey added when asked why F1, which was bought by Liberty Media for $4.4 billion in 2017, staged races in these destinations.
“I think it is very important in much the way the World Cup and the Olympics compete around the world with countries from around the world, we compete around the world.
“We’re proud to race on the continents, around the world and, again, I think we go to places where we can be a force for good, we can be a force for positive change.”
Asked what talks F1 was having with Bahrain and other countries accused of violating human rights to ensure the issues are being addressed, Carey said those “conversations essentially deal with the core rights of individuals to be respected and opportunities for individuals to improve their lives.
“You’re talking about Saudi Arabia. You know, there’s been quite clear publicity about increased rights for females in Saudi Arabia and I think in these countries we do believe there’s a commitment and a desire to provide greater opportunities for the people in the countries.”
Saudi Arabia’s law that barred women from driving was lifted in 2018, but Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the most prominent women’s rights defenders who led the fight for that right, remains in jail.
As well as Formula 1, boxing, football and Formula E have staged high-profile events in Saudi Arabia.
Since Bahrain made its debut on the F1 calendar in 2004, the government says its human rights reforms “have been comprehensive, unique to the region, and delivered in partnership with international governments.”
Among the reforms it listed as examples were the “establishment of the National Institution for Human Rights,” in partnership with the United Nations, the “creation of an Independent Ombudsman to investigate all allegations of mistreatment or poor standards within the criminal justice system” and the establishment of a special unit to investigate allegations against government officials.”
The government also said that since 2011, some 21,000 police officers and Ministry of Interior staff “received human rights training.”
During 2020, seven-time world champion Hamilton has emerged as a strong voice for diversity and racial equality in the past few months, and he addressed the issue of human rights at a news conference last week, ahead of November 29 race.
“Naturally, the human rights issue in so many of the places that we go to is a consistent and a massive problem,” he said. “We are probably one of the only ones that goes to so many different countries and I do think as a sport we need to do more.”
Hamilton’s comments were prompted by letters from human rights activists passed to him by Sayed Alwadaei, director of the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
Carey told CNN he disagrees with Hamilton.
“First, I don’t think we have a massive problem,” he said. “I think actually sports have a unique opportunity to be a force for good. I think sports in some ways have uniquely over time crossed borders, crossed cultures and brought people from different places together and I think the world’s got a lot of places you can boycott and protest.
“I think the world could use a few more places where you try and create good through encouragement and positive reinforcement, as opposed to boycotting or protesting and I think sports has a track record of bringing people from different backgrounds, different perspectives, different cultures together.
“I think in many ways that can be a real force for positive change.”
Jack Guy contributed to this report.