By Henrietta Zeffert
London 2012 Men's Marathon

A flame burns in a gigantic cauldron above the city. The media centre and the swimming pool (both designed by a leading international architecture firm) are built on land that until recently was home to a community of squatters and artists, as well as the city’s largest housing support service.

Soon after the city won its bid for the Games, the council began to sweep out the community. Each week hundreds were pushed to the outer limits of the city. They were given cash for a few days’ food and rent which was stuffed into their palms, and a warning not to return. The Possession of Public Spaces Act was passed without debate. Bulldozers mowed all traces of the community into the dirt. One morning new street signs appeared: Victory Way, Gold Street, Olympic Avenue.

This scene is reminiscent of many urban landscapes that have been transformed by large-scale sport or social events, otherwise known as “mega events”. A mega event includes world fairs and international conferences, though the best representation is the Olympics. As London has just hosted its Olympic Games, it’s timely to consider the impact of mega events on the rights of citizens in host cities. While mega events have both positive and negative impacts, they are also an opportunity to enhance the realisation of human rights.

The concept of a mega event

In the last half century, mega events have become more than celebrations of sport and culture. Cities and states staging international events view them as part of their economic development strategy. These events involve renewal of urban infrastructure and real estate investment. Host cities vie for prestige with cutting edge architecture by leading international designers – best exemplified by Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium created for the 2008 games. In turn, mega events are seen as key to repositioning in the globalised market economy.

Mega events are often the catalyst for new development and urban regeneration, which generates: new business and employment opportunities; increased traffic, demand for services and public transport; as well as changes in population demographics, environment and air quality, and cost of living.

Some of this has positive impacts on citizens’ rights, such as increased access to work and general economic benefit. However, the negative impacts of mega events on citizens’ rights, and on the city’s capacity to realise citizens’ rights, are more numerous.

Mega events have the potential to tear, rather than strengthen, the social fabric of the communities they touch.

Negative impacts of mega events on human rights

There are temporary negative impacts such as the closure of local amenities, disruption of public transport and event-related construction work. Transient, short-term worker populations can also place strain on limited facilities and alter the composition of a community. All of this can produce a sort of “neighbourhood shock” in host cities.

But mega events also cause more permanent concerns, including the spatial transformations that host cities undergo. Chiefly, repossession of land for constructing event venues results in the eviction of citizens from their homes, and the displacement of whole families and communities. Generally, compensation – if any – is inadequate to replace property and less quantifiable social goods, such as community, belonging and familiarity.

Secondary effects of these spatial transformations include rent hikes for citizens who choose to remain in their homes during the event; escalating living costs; a decrease in availability of social and low cost housing; and the criminalisation of homelessness; and discrimination against the poor.

Euphemistic efforts at beautification and urban regeneration also create inequality by ushering marginalised and disadvantaged people to the geographic and social limits of cities. At the same time the young, wealthy and mobile become concentrated in inner urban, new build ghettos.

Rights of urban citizenship and the deterioration of civic values

Mega events have the potential to tear, rather than strengthen, the social fabric of the communities they touch. In particular, they deteriorate the rights of urban citizenship and civic values.

Citizens typically have few opportunities to help in the design, planning and staging of mega events. Instead, decisions affecting the lives and livelihood of citizens are made without their consultation. Technocrats in charge instead have a vested interest in seeing the event go ahead with minimum disruption (such as from pesky locals). Significantly, these players have no ties to the community, insulating them from the negative impacts of the mega event.

More concerning is how the spatial transformation of the urban environment in host cities reconfigures the dynamics of power. In particular, loss of physical environment to private development reduces the space available for citizens to democratically participate in decisions shaping their experience of freedom.

In addition to limits on citizens’ political rights to move freely, associate and protest, mega events also curb freedom of expression. For example through arbitrarily tougher penalties, such as for graffiti and busking, which are brought in for the duration of the event.

A rationale of exception?

As mega events draw near, the situation of vulnerable people deteriorates. Host cities have in some cases introduced “exceptional” laws to remove “unsightly” groups from public spaces. Prior to the Sydney Olympics, for example, Aboriginal people were moved from areas around venues to “beautify” the city.

Policies and special laws designed to “cleanse” the city by moving people on discriminates against low-income populations, ethnic minorities, the elderly and the disabled. For example in Athens, host city for the 2004 Olympics, Roma communities were the main target of displacement. In Beijing, the majority of evictees were migrant workers.

Typically, the special laws empower authorities to push vulnerable people to the outskirts of the city, with no prior consultation, notice, or opportunity for review of the decision. And often they have been offered no alternative accommodation or adequate compensation. Disturbingly, there has also been a trend among host cities to use camps and other large facilities to accommodate “unsightly” people for the duration of the event.

The criminalisation of homelessness, street sleeping and conducting business in public places, as well as citations for “offensive behavior”, tend to affect groups who are most dependent on public spaces for their livelihood. In preparation for the 2002 Football World Cup in Seoul, local authorities created a list of places where homeless people were banned. During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, homelessness was made illegal and over 9000 citations were issued against homeless people. Street vendors, sex workers, beggars, young people and migrants are also targets.

The rationale of exception used to justify these special measures is dangerous. Where their consequence is severe restriction on rights, freedoms and standards of public life, the danger with exceptional laws is that they threaten to become the norm. In the short term too, these measures have a negative impact by feeding a culture of discrimination and generating a negative human rights legacy.

(Lack of) accountability

Our silence on the negative impacts of mega events is striking. This is because accountability for human rights during mega events is a grey area. Who should be held to account for protecting citizens’ rights in the context of a mega event? Host cities? The state? Individuals? Or private corporations, partners and sponsors?

It’s clear that states owe human rights obligations under international law, and that individuals and the private sector can be held to account under domestic law. However, host cities are rarely considered legal entities and so fall through the cracks of accountability. This leaves host cities’ actions unchecked – and the human rights impacts of mega events swept under the rug.

To ensure that host cities and others responsible for mega events act in conformity with human rights standards, it is important that these are addressed clearly in binding norms.

Legal standards

While few states have adopted laws specific to mega events, host cities and event bodies have taken some steps towards minimising the negative impacts of mega events.

In 1999 the International Olympic Committee adopted the Olympic Movement Agenda 21 – Sport for Sustainable Development. The agenda applies in the context of Olympic Games and aims to combat social exclusion and promote sports infrastructure better suited to social needs.

In 2000, the Sydney Olympic Park Authority adopted a Protocol for Homeless People in Public Places in time for the Games. The protocol is designed “to help ensure that homeless people are treated appropriately and receive services if they need, or request them.” The protocol is meant to “balance” people’s right to be in public places with respect for the right of local communities to live in a safe and peaceful environment. Yet in the notoriously slippery parlance of “balance”, the conditions for achieving the goals of the protocol are vague, leaving open the potential for bureaucratic abuse.

More recently, Vancouver adopted an Inner-city Inclusive Agreement for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. This aimed to ensure that the Games were environmentally and socially sustainable. The agreement guaranteed that no one would be made homeless as a result of the Games, and that the Olympic Village would be transformed into a residential neighbourhood with 250 units assigned to non-market housing.

These initiatives, while praiseworthy, fail to address human rights explicitly. To ensure that host cities and others responsible for mega events act in conformity with human rights standards, it is important that these are addressed clearly in binding norms.

At the international level, as a result of pressure for action on mega events, some standards have been developed. The most significant among these is the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 2010 resolution on the right to adequate housing in the context of mega events. In its resolution the HRC called on states, in the context of mega events, to promote the right to adequate housing and to create a sustainable, development-oriented housing legacy.

The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, Raquel Rolnik, has also published a report that looks at the impacts of mega events. The report advises host cities how they can protect, respect and fulfill the right to housing while staging mega events. The report urges host cities to provide: security of tenure for owners, tenants and occupants both before, during and after an event; protection against eviction, discrimination and harassment of local populations; and programs for resettlement and compensation for affected populations. The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations are significantly stronger than the HRC’s.

The work of the international community to develop these soft law standards is admirable. However, their principal focus is on housing rights. They fail to address the impact of mega events on the whole panoply of citizens’ rights – economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.

However, the Special Rapporteur’s report did raise one idea that could be applied to human rights in the context of mega events more generally. This is the idea of using “social impact assessments” to measure the affect of mega events on the lives of citizens. These are similar to the now-standard environmental impact assessments. The use of social impact assessment would help ensure that the planning and staging of mega events facilitates and enhances the enjoyment of human rights, and moreover, meets and exceeds human rights best practice.

Unfortunately, while London’s bid book for the Games canvassed an environmental impact assessment with socio-economic aspects, no attention was paid to the impact of the event on human rights. Nor was an explicit commitment to human rights included.

A human rights approach to mega events would include designing and constructing venues that facilitate disabled access; employing marginalised people in venue management; ensuring gender equality among event volunteers; and mandating clean air standards to fulfill citizens’ right to a healthy environment.

The idea of human rights-based social impact assessments has so far been little explored. This is disappointing, considering the potential for these to stimulate creative and visionary human rights practice – and to catalyse a shift in the legacy of mega events from building GDP to realising human rights. In the context of sponsor-rich mega events, at least there is no cost barrier to this positive human rights legacy becoming a reality.

A global charter of urban rights?

One idea for better protecting and promoting citizens’ rights during a mega event is a global charter of urban rights. Such a charter – which has been mooted for some time – could provide guidance to citizens and host cities before, during and after mega events by mandating standards for human rights compliance.

This charter should also include a monitoring mechanism to ensure that human rights standards are met at all times. A global charter of urban rights could also improve awareness of the impact of mega events on citizens’ rights and lead to better outcomes for human rights realisation generally.

A positive human rights legacy for London?

Will London 2012 deliver a positive human rights legacy? City mayor Boris Johnson promised in his re-election campaign earlier this year that the regeneration of East London for the Olympics would deliver “30,000 new homes, thousands of jobs, shopping centres and business parks”, all of which would be “served by the new transport links and infrastructure connecting brand new communities to the rest of the capital.”

This declaration clashes with the reality that in the past six years property values surrounding London Games venues have increased by up to 60,000 pounds ($89,100 AUD), sparking speculation of income inequality and driving rich and poor households into segregated neighbourhoods. Boris’ promise is also at odds with a deepening housing crisis in wider London, as well as the increasingly oxymoronic “London Living Wage” initiative and failed attempts to place a cap on rising rents. Unfortunately a displacement trend is already apparent too. Housing charity Shelter reports that the London housing “crunch” has seen landlords evict tenants to gouge tourists, and others, enforcing expensive “penalties” for tenants wanting to stay in their home during the Olympics.

Moreover, a number of social housing units have been destroyed in connection with the Games and citizens have been displaced from Olympic sites. In some cases, displaced residents have been resettled. For example, the London Development Agency has built new sites to relocate 35 traveller families. Of course, resettlement cannot replace the bonds of family and community that are built over time in the place that people call home.

If Sydney’s experience is anything to go by, this dismal forecast in London shouldn’t surprise us. In 1999, Shelter in Australia predicted the negative impacts of the Olympics on Sydney, all of which proved accurate. These included accelerating processes of urban change; pressure on the housing market, including increased rents and house prices; event site development displacing existing residents; and increased harassment of, and criminal charges against, homeless persons.

Nonetheless, it’s encouraging that London’s bid book did entail several positive commitments. These include limiting construction of new venues to avoid disrupting existing housing stock, which effectively reduces the number of forced evictions; devoting 50 per cent of new dwellings to social housing; and constructing a number of community facilities. These are welcome commitments considering the historic deprivation in the East London area, where Games venues are concentrated. But whether London can be held to account to these on-paper commitments is yet to be seen.

Henrietta Zeffert is a writer and academic, based in Melbourne and the United Kingdom.


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