“Olympic boycott not the right answer”

12.08.2013 - Interview

Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning believes a boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics would not be the right response to Russia’s homophobic policy. However, he thinks that “sending clear messages” to President Putin is important. Broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur on 12 August 2013.


We’re in the midst of one major sporting event in Russia and there’s already talk of whether or not to boycott the next one. The IAAF World Championships are currently taking place in Moscow and in six months’ time the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi. Russia is to play host to visitors from around the world in Sochi, but how can a country that prosecutes homosexuals, that prohibits by law public displays of homosexuality play host to an international event.

The CDU politician Jens Spahn finds this grotesque, Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger regards the exclusion of homosexuals as a further step towards total dictatorship, and her FDP colleague Markus Löning, the Federal Government Commissioner for Human Rights Policy, calls it state persecution. We have him on the line now. Good morning, Mr Löning.

Good morning.

Total dictatorship, state persecution – doesn’t that force us to draw just one conclusion, namely that we have to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics?

It first of all leads to the conclusion that sports federations have to think more carefully in future about how and to whom the hosting of such major events is awarded. More consideration has to be given as to whether any given venue provides the right environment for our athletes. Will our athletes ultimately be safe? But also: what kind of signal are we sending when the hosting of such a sporting event is awarded to a country with problems of this nature? I don’t think it’s right to discuss a boycott at this point in time. Rather, I believe it’s important to look at the situation in Russia. As for the homophobic law in force there now, it’s just one of many repressive laws. All in all, Russia is moving towards more repression, more authoritarianism, more dictatorship. The overall situation in Russia is bad, not just for homosexuals standing up for their rights.

Herr Löning, but if we don’t boycott the Games what can we do to change the situation there?

In my view, we have to examine the situation. We have to ensure that Mr Putin can’t use the Olympics as a great PR show for himself. Instead, we have to look at the situation and find out what’s happening parallel to the competitions. What’s the social situation in the country, what are the realities of life in Russia? How are people who stand up for democratic rights treated? How are journalists who want to report on what’s actually happening in the country treated? The overall situation in Russia in this regard is bad. We’ve seen a marked rise in repression since Mr Putin was re-elected President. And I believe that’s what matters: we have to take a look at what’s going on, speak out loud and clear about any problems we see and prevent Mr Putin from turning the Olympics into a major PR show for himself.

But the international community is already doing that. It’s addressing this issue, it’s expressing its disquiet. President Barack Obama has also stated that he’s against a boycott. He’s said that the US should go to Sochi and win medals, that gay and lesbian athletes should go to Sochi and win medals. He thinks that would send the right message. But all of that shows that Russia isn’t listening, doesn’t it?

Well, in my experience it’s vitally important to political activists that they receive clear messages of support from the outside world, that we let them know that we’re observing the situation, that they have our support and that we’re thinking of them. It’s incredibly important moral and political support for these campaigners. And ultimately the Government’s reaction shows that it’s aware of the outrage and pressure from abroad. I’m very much in favour of continuing to make these clear statements, not only in connection with such major events but whenever necessary. And we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of our actions.

You say that the Government’s reaction shows that it’s heard the protests – what makes you think that?

I experience time and again in the course of my work that an attempt is made to get around these clear statements by saying: don’t keep bringing this up or that there is an angry reaction when problems are addressed loud and clear. The messages are heard: even if they don’t always lead to an immediate policy change, they certainly get through.

The Green Party member Volker Beck and Johannes Kahrs from the SPD have called for the Games to be held somewhere else. Would that perhaps be a happy medium between a boycott and simply going there and winning medals?

It goes without saying that every athlete, every visitor, indeed every politician thinking about travelling to Sochi must decide for themselves whether they want to go there, what kind of message they would be sending, whether they would perhaps be supporting someone whom they don’t really want to support. I believe people have to decide that for themselves. They have to make up their minds whether it’s right to go there.

Would you go?

I find all these debates about moving the Olympics a bit irrelevant, they are phantom debates. I believe it’s more important to take a look at the situation, even to go there, perhaps go to other places away from the Olympic venues. For it’s good for visitors to gain a first-hand impression of this country.

And how will you decide whether or not to go to the Games?

As I’m not keen on either taking part in or watching winter sports, I don’t have to spend any time thinking about it. I’ll certainly travel to Russia on other occasions and meet dissidents there, people who are campaigning for democracy, for their rights, homosexual activists. And we’ll invite people to Germany again, in particular homosexual activists, in order to provide them with support both here and from here.

An Olympic boycott is not the right solution according to Markus Löning from the FDP, the Federal Government Human Rights Commissioner. Thank you for talking to us, Mr Löning, and have a nice day.

Thank you.

Interviewer: Julius Stucke. Reproduced by kind permission of www.dradio.de

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