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Olympic Games 1980

Volume 960: debated on Friday 15 December 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

2.27 p.m.

A remarkable ceremony took place this morning, at 10 o'clock, when letters were handed over from the bishop of Croydon and the bishop of Tonbridge indicating their concern about the question of human rights in the Soviet Union and urging that the Government make strong representations to the Government of that nation. These letters were handed to the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill). He feels, as I do, that this is a very important attempt by the Church and by those who were involved in the ceremony this morning—a group of youngsters had jogged all the way from Croydon—to show concern and commitment to the very subject which I wish to raise in this debate.

In my view, the Olympic Games should not be held in Moscow. I think that the British Government should do everything in their power to ensure a change of venue. If the venue is not changed, the Government should make clear their opposition to a British team competing in those Olympics.

Let me be clear about this. I am opposed to the staging of international sporting events in any country where the rights of individuals are threatened and where, as Amnesty International has shown, there is a consistent policy of suppression and harassment of its people.

The majority of those who express concern about human rights would not tolerate the holding of a major sporting event in South Africa. Indeed, with a few exceptions, such as New Zealand, South Africa's racial politics have resulted in almost complete isolation in sport. That is as it should be. But why is it right to cut off sporting links with South Africa but to keep them with the Soviet Union?

South Africa's transgressions against human rights centre around its racial policies. Soviet Russia's offences against human rights reach into many other areas. But Russia is racist. Jews in Russia are second-class citizens, prevented from following their religion, forbidden to speak their own language, and prevented from seeking freedom in other countries. Soviet Russia rejects the right to form free trade unions and if those who seek to better their working conditions are not able to accept this they are expelled from the State unions and thus denied the right to work.

Nor does the USSR's infringement of basic human rights end with the denial of basic freedoms. The punishments visited on those who seek to dissent in any way from the State line—by professing a religious faith, by wanting to leave the country, by wanting to improve their working conditions, or even by showing too great an interest in the Western world —are very cruel and inhuman. The mass executions of Stalin's days may be a thing of the past, but the labour camps go on, and, worse, there is incarceration in mental institutions.

I am chairman of the all-party mental health committee, and my colleagues and I believe that there is a joint feeling in the House on this question. Many institutions in the Soviet Union are still operating like a Victorian lunatic asylum, with none of the advances in the care of the mentally sick which our own hospitals exhibit. In these institutions are placed dissidents, often with serious disturbed and violent patients. Frequently they are forcibly administered psychotropic drugs, resulting in disorientation, so that it becomes difficult to keep a grip on sanity. If anyone does not already know about the way in which human rights are suppressed by the psychiatric hospital treatment, I urge him to read the book by Bloch and Reddaway, or Vladimir Bukovsky's own account of his experiences as a dissenter in Russia.

Yet the Soviet Union has signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and has subscribed to the Helsinki convention. Those who have dared to monitor the adherence to the Helsinki convention have been the most recent victims of the Soviet suppression of freedom. I wonder whether hon. Members know that more than 20 of those who formed monitoring committees associated with the Helsinki agreement are now in prison. We have heard of Yuri Orlov, Alexander Ginsburg and Anatoli Shcharansky. There is also Ida Nudel, a friend of my own family, and Vladmir Slepak, who have been exiled to Siberia because they wanted to leave Russia. There is also Alexander Podrabinek, who spoke against the pyschiatric abuse. He, too, is now in Siberia. There is also Joseph Bondarenka, a Latvian Baptist now in a labour camp for preaching in a recognised chapel.

We must not turn a blind eye to what is happening in the Soviet Union. For too long we have been operating double standards. It is against this background that I want to relate the situation to the Olympic Games. For too long we have looked the other way, not only in our attitude towards sport but in the councils of the world. It has happened in the International Labour Organisation, but I believe that that organisation is waking up.

It has happened in the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations, which in its 30 years of operation has probably covered up more human rights violations than it has exposed because of its Power bloc line-up. The organisation itself is concerned only with South Africa, Israel and, more recently, Chile. Yet more than 100,000 complaints from individuals and organisations about human rights viola- tions have been totally ignored in the last seven years alone. Amnesty International has documented many cases for submission to the Commission, but, like thousands of individual cries for help that the Commission receives each year, these have disappeared into the hands of the secret delaying bureaucracy that the Commission operates.

But why make the Olympic Games the occasion for our protest? My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport has said—

I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the denial of basic human rights in Communist countries and other dictatorships, and agree that we in the free world have a responsibility to encourage the persecuted members of such societies, but will he attempt to equate the Moscow Olympic Games with the perhaps similar circumstances of the games held in Germany in 1936, for example? Does he not accept that the presence of many thousands of spectators, media men and participants from the free world in Moscow will lead to widespread communication with the Russian people, notwithstanding the attempts by the Soviet authorities to try to reduce such communication?

It is as a result of such communication that people will be encouraged to press for greater freedom for themselves, and there is evidence from the recent European games in Prague that such a trend was promoted. I ask the hon. Gentleman, therefore, whether he agrees that having the games in Moscow is an opportunity not to be missed—

Order. So far, so good. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) may be able to catch my eye and make a speech, but not in the middle of someone else's speech.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks, and I will deal with them. I was about to develop the question of how far this canvas of suppression of human rights in the Soviet Union relates to sporting activities. My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for sport has said that, regardless of the fact that in some countries sport and politics are indivisible, we must not follow suit. I am sure that he will not mind if I quote recent correspondence that we have exchanged. He said:

" It would put us in the same category as those whose actions we now deplore and prevent us from trying to persuade them to see the error of their ways. We should find ourselves on a spiral of using sport for broad political purposes and end up by not playing anyone at anything."
That is not very different from the point raised by the hon. Member for Bourne-mouth, East (Mr. Atkinson).

I believe that this is a misguided view of the impact that spectators can make when visiting a country, which the sheer power and propaganda of the host country can exploit, and visitors are inevitably lost when the scale and the operation of something like the Olympics takes place.

I think that what I object to most is perhaps that last sentence of my right hon. Friend's letter. I think that it is unfair and nonsense, and I suspect, as we are close colleagues, that he knows it. We are talking about fundamental human rights and not childish games. It is absolutely right to sever all sporting links with South Africa. Few have done more than my right hon. Friend has in this regard. But it is surely right also to say that we will not take part in Olympics held in Moscow. Part of the case that he must answer is why it is possible that we can have the enthusiasm and the energy to isolate one nation—for which I have little time and much contempt because of the way it has handled the problems of human rights but for some other reason are prepared to say that such conditions are totally acceptable in the Soviet Union.

I am not the only person asking this question. I suspect that between now and 1980 many people will be asking the same question throughout the world. My right hon. Friend seems to think that we have a choice in the matter, as if the majority of nations do not regard international sport as part of their political image. Surely he is wrong.

Part of the justification for this argument is that we should not let politics affect sport and that sport is something quite different. But I argue that it is happening. I wonder whether hon. Members read Robert Whymant's remarkable report in The Guardian last weekend. He talked about the Asian games. He said:
" The Asian Games, which begin here today, have shown how much international tournaments have almost become an extension of warfare. The sports events have been overshadowed by the uproar about the exclusion of Israel. The Chinese have tried to score propaganda points by ' inviting ' Taiwanese athletes to attend. Cambodia and Vietnam, locked in a bitter border war, are using the occasion to canvass support for their cause."
I could go on to mention a whole series of other incidents involving other countries. I find it difficult to believe that as professional politicians we cannot accept that the idea that sport and politics are separate, isolated from each other, each going its separate way, does not in any way impress the public and is naïve.

It was the Soviet bloc that was initially responsible for attempting to get this tremendous event to Moscow when it decided that the games would make a wonderful showcase for the athletically-superior product of the Soviet system—a product that is as battery-produced as a frozen chicken—to dazzle the eyes of those outside. No wonder Russian sport is in the hands of the department of agitation and propaganda of the Communist Party central committee. Getting the Olympics to Moscow is that department's greatest triumph. The Russians have been trying for several years, and eventually the International Olympic Committee succumbed to the dazzle. It is up to the free Governments of the world to bring it down to earth.

The importance of the Moscow Olympics to the Russians can be better understood if we recall the 1936 Olympics in Germany. The same argument was used then as we heard a moment ago from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East. It was argued that there would be a large number of visitors who would influence the mood of the country. No such thing took place. That event has been very well documented. Walter Leclair has written a brilliant piece about it, and there are many other books in our Library that show that the people who went to Munich were able to see the sport but did not make any impact, and nor were they expected to.

The Nazis made it clear that sport was an integral part of Nazi ideology and practice, and in 1936 that made sense and it made propaganda. It was designed to show the superiority of the Third Reich over the decadent West. The games were a triumph for the Nazis. German athletes did well. The young men marched through the streets demonstrating joy, peace and discipline. Visitors were dazzled by a Berlin dressed up to receive them. They forgot the terror behind the acceptable face of Fascism. Hitler was able to believe he had duped the world. It was the high point of appeasement.

I am surprised and saddened that any Member of this House should imagine that we can run that reel again. We must not again be duped into supporting the window dressing of tyranny.

It has been argued that the presence of so many foreigners in Moscow will have a liberalising influence. Does anyone believe that ordinary Muscovites will have free access to the games and the visitors without proof positive of their loyalty beforehand? The human rights trials show that the Russians are trying to clear dissidents away before they can speak to visitors. Are politicians in this House so naive that they can even begin to proffer that advice? I believe that the answer is "No."

The only honourable response to the situation in Russia is for the Government to light its own Olympic torch and, remembering the spirit of the Olympic Games, declare itself for truth and human rights. We must begin by making an approach to other nations. Once we have declared ourselves, others will follow in rejecting Moscow as a suitable host city. The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs made a similar point last August. I wonder what has happened since then, because this has not been followed up.

It is defeatist to say that there is not time to arrange a new venue. If the will is there, it can be done. There are other cities with adequate facilities where the staging of the games would not make a mockery of the assumption behind the granting of the games—that peace and order reign in that country.

I conclude by quoting the words of Vladimir Bukovsky, a man who knows what it is to have to resist. He said that the removal of the Olympic Games,
" so far from damaging the Olympic movement, is the only course that can save it and light a flame which instead of burning in Lenin's stadium for 15 days will burn throughout the world for all posterity."
I have much in common with the Minister. We have worked together on many campaigns, and I recognise his passionate concern for sport. But can he sit comfortably, if he goes to Moscow, watching men perform feats, however magnificent and superb, knowing that within a few miles there are people who have been mistreated and wrongly confined? This is not propaganda it is documented. If he can, I find it remarkable. I could not sit in that stadium knowing that whatever the pageant and superb athleticism there were people nearby who were not able to fulfil their human dignity. That is the challenge.

2.44 p.m.

The whole House will deeply appreciate and admire the initiative of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) in launching this debate. It is a fitting end to this part of this Session of Parliament. We are here on the eve of Christmas, when we think once more of justice, good will and humanity all round the world. I endorse with enthusiasm what the hon. Member said.

It is important that this Parliament, which represents the quintessential system of justice and human rights, should strike this note again and remind the Soviet Union that we will not leave this issue alone until we have a much more satisfactory answer, not only from the Minister but from others who can influence this decision. I hope that it will be possible for the Olympics that are scheduled to take place in Moscow to be relocated elsewhere.

The hon. Gentleman was modest, moderate and restrained in his words. We do not wish to interfere with the international affairs of the Soviet Union. But because those affairs have been externalised since the Russians signed all the international declarations on human rights, freedom and justice, we insist that justice be done. We ask them—and Ambassador Lunkov—to read these words in Hansard. We must remember that there are not just thousands but millions imprisoned in the Soviet Union for civil rights or so-called political crimes. Those millions need us to strike a chord repeatedly for them until an alternative location is found.

2.46 p.m.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman) and the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) raised this matter. I applaud them for doing so, but I do not share their conclusion although I share their concern. I cannot sit easily anywhere if a human being is being denigrated anywhere in the world, whether at a sporting event in Moscow, a concert in Argentina, or a debate in this House. Our concern must be all-embracing. That is the difference between us.

It is difficult to single out one event in the calendar of human relationships between us and the rest of the world and the Soviet Union and say that it is unique —and I agree that the Olympics are unique—and it is there that we should focus our protest. I do not share that view.

I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Weatherill), who has handed me a copy of this message as a result of the jog. May I say how much I respect the young people, the bishops and others involved in this who thought it right to make that protest.

It is important to understand the British position on sport. The Prime Minister has made it clear that it is for British sportsmen to decide where they go. It is for the British Olympic Association, the governing bodies of British sport and individual sportsmen and sportswomen to decide. We apply that concept even in South Africa. I am usually asked why I say that we should not go to South Africa if I say that we should go elsewhere. In South Africa it was the International Olympic Committee that was the first body in the world to take South Africa out because of racial discrimination within sport. To the best of my knowledge, in the Soviet Union, unlike South Africa where there is discrimination against people because of the colour of their skin, there is no discrimination against any of its citizens participating in sport. I believe that is the reason why the IOC draws a distinction.

The position of the British Government has been supported by the Ministers of the Council of Europe who were here in April, and we have been supported not least on the stand we have taken in UNESCO, where there was an attempt to bring international sport under political control. We successfully resisted this.

British sportsmen and sportswomen are just as concerned about human rights as is anybody else. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon did not seek to question their motives in wishing to go there. That is right, because sport is a free expression of individual free will and personality. That is what it is all about. Those qualities are expressed more magnificently in sport than almost anywhere else.

I accept the sincerity of people who say that we should break up all these international relationships. I do not agree with it, but I accept it. We must also look at the other side of the case—the contribution that sport makes to helping the political, social and racial problems of the world. This must not be discounted. For example, the Olympic Games for six weeks once every four years is the only place where the youth of the world come together, irrespective of their colour, religion, creed or the character of their Governments, and mix freely in the Olympic village.

This is something of supreme importance, not only in sporting but in political terms and in terms of human relationships. I should be very loth to see that sacrificed. The Olympic Games is an extremely important event in the world. This kind of thing does not happen in the arts, politics or education. It happens only in sport, and it is something to be treasured.

I have told my opposite numbers in the Soviet Union that the reason why I am in favour of the games being held in Moscow is that Moscow will never be the same again. It must make a difference if all the citizens from the free world go there and assert their traditional values.

I know the problem of the Jews in the Soviet Union and have every possible sympathy. There is the question of Israel. As far as I know, I am the only Minister of Sport in the world to make a forthright declaration about the disgraceful treatment that Israel has received in international sport. Not only have I asserted that in public discussion in this country ; I have written to Lord Killanin about it.

I have praised the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which is trying to do something about this problem in the Asian Games.

The Soviet Union has been asked by the International Olympic Committee to give an undertaking that Israeli athletes will be in Moscow in 1980 on the same terms as everyone else. Without that undertaking there could be no Olympic Games. But the Russians have given that undertaking. That is of profound importance to the people whose cause my hon. Friend has at heart. I advise him to think about it and not to throw over that right of Israel to be present in international sport on equal terms with everyone else. My hon. Friend will agree that he and I are both trying to assert the same values and principles—

Does that declaration apply to all other countries?

It applies to all member countries of the IOC. They must give that undertaking. I have had correspondence and talks with Lord Killanin, and we agree that this most forthright declaration is something we must value, sustain and defend.

I have the greatest possible sympathy with the human rights campaign. I am the president of a trade union and we had the same dilemma in that union—APEX. We have a relationship with a trade union in the Soviet Union—the light engineering union. We had to decide whether we should break off relations with that union and not invite its delegates, or whether we should ask them here—which we did—and whether, when they got here, we should serve notice that we would discuss these matters with them. In private discussion and at an official dinner we vigorously asserted in the most unambiguous language our beliefs about the treatment of free trade unionists and others in the Soviet Union. I judge for myself the effect of having done it in that way. I think that the effect was more profound and lasting on members of that delegation than had we sent them a letter telling them not to come. I think that our decision was right.

Sportsmen, and particularly British sportsmen, believe that they have been asked to fight all the political battles of the world through sport. Quite frankly, they do not like it. That is not to say that sport and politics are not intertwined. They are. Every day of the week I face decisions about South Africa, about Argentina, about the European Games in Czechoslovakia, and I know that these decisions affect sport, politics and human relations. One cannot divorce one from the other at the end of the day. All one can do is to try to weave one's way through this quagmire, assert certain basic principles and see that they are maintained.

I was right to say to my hon. Friend in that letter which he read out that some sportsmen do not see why they should be subjected to this campaign when the same things are not said about visiting musicians and artists, industry and trade delegations and others coming from the Soviet Union. That view must be respected.

The logic of my hon. Friend's case is that we break off all relationships with countries whose records in these affairs we disapprove of. That is an argument, but it is not the way which assures us of achieving our ends. After all, there was not this campaign in anything like this form about the World Cup finals in Argentina, where there are just as much, if not more, suppression of human rights and more unacceptable things going on than in some other countries.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East may be able to draw a distinction between the Soviet Union and Argentina in matters such as the denial of human rights and terror campaigns, but I cannot. Whenever one citizen is denied his human rights anywhere in the world, it undermines all the values that we seek to assert.

I went to the world swimming championships in Berlin when this campaign was starting. If the campaign was valid at all, the time for the protest was when the Olympic Games were awarded to Moscow six years ago, not now. Nothing much has changed in human rights terms in that time. Also, it is impossible to imagine that several hundred million pounds' worth of sporting activity could be staged somewhere else with only a year or so to go to the games. That is not on.

When I was at the international swimming championships, the first question our young people asked me was why was everyone trying to stop them from competing in the Olympic Games. I should point out that the Olympic Village and all the Olympic venues are international territory for purposes of the games. That is absolutely central to the ideals and aims of the Olympic movement.

Our youngsters pointed out that the Olympic Games presented the one opportunity they had in four years to represent their country in such a sporting event. They have trained hard for four years and made sacrifices. They feel very strongly that they should be allowed to compete in the greatest sporting event in the world. We should not lightly demand that they withdraw. I understand the anxiety and the arguments. I praise my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon for raising the subject.

My right hon. Friend has said that things will never be quite the same in Moscow if the Olympic Games are held there. What evidence is there for that extraordinary optimism? Was it in Munich? Where did it happen? Did it happen in Argentina? Did we get any reaction from the Argentinians?

I have a greater confidence in my fellow citizens from the free world who assert their values in Moscow than does my hon. Friend. I refuse to write off all the representatives of the free world in Moscow. I do not believe that they will go there without concern and without asserting their views.

We are 40 years from then. My hon. Friend is not right about that. Everybody remembers Jesse Owens in 1936 and what his personality asserted. Everybody remembers that he was a coloured man who won medals and caused Hitler to storm out. I do not place that incident on a high pedestal but it cannot be ignored.

Sport is about the expression of individual personality and the free association of people and fair contests between them. In Moscow in 1980 there will be the finest representation of the world's youth. Sadly, many will come from countries with oppressive regimes and countries whose record in human rights leaves everything to be desired. However, for a short time they will live and compete with people of merit whom I value and who will express their own views. Those competitors, who have the privilege of representing the free democracies of the world, will have a happy association with competitors from less fortunate countries in the village and elsewhere.

The hope of those who are involved in British sport is that by these concepts and through these friendships they will serve not only sport but the cause of peace and human rights throughout the world. That is the hope that joins hon. Members who have taken part in the debate.