Issues Home About Contact Us Issue 30 - July 2024 عربى
International Developments

Mega-events, human rights and the Paris Olympics

Mega-events are often promoted as powerful instruments of physical change and sources of prestige for host cities. However, the urban ‘renewal,’ beautification, new event-specific infrastructure and construction, event venues or villages and construction of facilities for such attractions typically accompany violations of the human right to adequate housing. Events such as Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, World Expos, IMF and World Bank conferences, and even beauty pageants such as the Miss World and Miss Universe contests often have produced familiar patterns of:

   1. Tenants and other inhabitants with insecure tenure who live on designated sites often forcibly evicted from their home communities;
   2. Accelerated gentrification, making neighborhoods increasingly unaffordable to their current residents;
   3. The initial promises of affordable housing that cities make when selling their bid to the community typically unfulfilled, while landlords seeking greater profits often forcing out their current tenants to rent space to tourists at exorbitant rates;
   4. Impoverished and houseless people often subject to criminalization, leading to consequences of incarceration, further forced eviction and/or ‘warehousing’ in isolated and temporary inadequate accommodations;
   5. Legal representatives and housing rights defenders who oppose or challenge the forced evictions subjected to intimidation, harassment and, in some instances, imprisonment for their activism, and/orPublic resources being diverted to fund the mega-events and/or subsidize related private interests.

Since the 1980s, housing rights defenders have focused on mega-events and their legacy of forced eviction and deepening of poverty where events take place. For instance, they reacted to the 1988 Summer Olympic Game preparations, when Korean authorities forcibly evicted 720,000 inhabitants of the host city, Seoul.

In advance of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, the market price of old and new housing rose between 1986 and 1992 by 240% and 287%respectively. A further 59,000 residents left Barcelona to live elsewhere between 1984 and 1992.

In the case of the Sydney Olympics, house prices doubled between 1996 and 2003. The cost of housing escalates due to mega events and the host city’s stock of social and low-cost housing diminished.

In 2003, human rights organizations raised the alarm on the terrible impact that preparations for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens were having upon multiple Romani communities who were being evicted from their settlements.

Past Olympic Games have proved to be extremely painful for homeless and low-income people. In host cities such as Atlanta, Salt Lake City and Sydney, homelessness was essentially criminalized during the Games and hundreds of homeless people were swept off the streets so the city could be sanitized for the tourists. Vancouver BC already had its own negative experience with a mega-event during Expo 86. There, roughly 1,000 low-income housing units had been converted to upscale hotels or market housing. So, low-income and houseless inhabitants say the same treatment as a matter of policy when the International Olympic Committee selected Vancouver to host the 2010 Winter Games.

London’s 2012 Olympic Games housing legacy was undeniable. It left a legacy of evictions, displacement, gentrification and social cleansing. London’s ever-worsening housing crisis became a money-spinning ballast  property developers colluded with state-led displacement on a grand scale.

In some cases, housing rights advocates have mounted tireless protests and squats, taking advantage of mega events to embarrass the government officials into investing more money into shelters and social housing. A 2007 compilation of cases showed that little had changed after two decades of tragic lessons already learnt.

Nonetheless, Beijing authorities had cleared large swaths of residential districts ahead of the 2008 Olympics, and real estate prices in Beijing had soared before the mega-event. An estimated total 1.5 million people were displaced by the time the Games commenced in August 2008.

That number does not include the approximately 400,000 migrants living ‘temporarily’ in 171 neighborhoods in situations of extreme insecurity. Most had come to Beijing due to lack of livelihood opportunities in rural areas. Internal migrants without local residency documents were summarily expelled from the city.

Evictions in Beijing often involved the complete demolition of poor people’s houses. The inhabitants are then forced to relocate far from their communities and workplaces, with inadequate transportation networks adding significantly to their cost of living. In Beijing, and in China more generally, the process of demolition and eviction is characterized by arbitrariness, violence and lack of due process. In many cases, tenants are given little or no notice of their eviction and do not receive the promised compensation. This lack of adequate reparation—or any remedy at all—sometimes leaves evictees at risk of further human rights violations, homelessness and spiraling poverty.

The 2023 FIFA/World Cup in Qatar also raised serious concerns about the conditions of migrant workers in the construction of the event venues, as well as migrant workers’ labor rights, in general, throughout the country and the region. Those facilities already have had multiple uses such as in the 2024 Asia Cup, and potentially can be dismantled and transported to other host cities, thus reducing the need for new construction.

In the case of the 2024 Paris Olympiad, one advantage has been the reuse of existing facilities. However, some measures taken by French authorities have raised both old and new human rights issues.

In an iconic act in preparation for the 2024 Games, French police forcibly evicted some 100 unhoused asylum seekers on 23 April 2024 from one of the many makeshift camps set up around the French capital. The scene took place just a few steps from the River Seine, where the opening ceremony of the summer Olympic Games will take place in late July. The camp’s residents were offered alternative solutions and temporary shelter, but with a downside: relocating to the city of Angers, more than 160 miles away from Paris. Meanwhile, the construction of the Athletes Village in the Parisian suburb of St. Denis is exploiting migrants illegally amid unscrupulous subcontracting networks at the heart of delivering the Paris 2024 Olympics.

In Paris, the AirB&B and other tourism housing services have driven up rents and decreased the availability of housing for local inhabitants. Besides this typical consequence of mega events, the Paris Games is raising the crucial issue of artificial intelligence (AI) surveillance throughout Paris before, during and after the games.

Additionally, the Paris Olympics authorities have imposed a ban against wearing the hijab by the women athletes on the French team. That human rights issue follows the French governments’ ban on the hijab, which has emerged as a controversy across France and internationally for 30 years.

Prevention and Remedy

A civil initiative, Revers de la médaille (the flipside of the medal), is pushing for the Paris 2024 Summer Games to leave “a positive social legacy” and is exposing the “ongoing social cleansing” in preparation for the global mega event. This local event-specific collective of associations and actors in solidarity is raising the alarm about the social impact social of the Olympics et Paralympics, advocating progress in the continuing struggle against exclusion.

Despite the glacial slowness of developing principles and values into international norms, existing norms and binding obligations apply to all organs of the state, requiring them to respect, protect and fulfill human rights relevant to such mega-events. Host cities, like central organs of the state, bear human rights obligations (obligations v. engagements Fr.), among them are the long-developed norms determining the (preventive) criteria for lawful eviction/displacement and prohibiting forced eviction (CESCR General Comment No. 7). On the remedial side, human rights norms establish the entitlements for victims of gross violations of human rights, including the human right to adequate housing. As always, victims of forced eviction—whether for mega events or other pretexts—are entitled to reparation.

Although preventive and remedial norms are in place and applicable to all organs of the state, including host cities and local authorities, and vivid lessons have been amply documented, many of these issues and lessons, actors in the proposals, planning and operation of mega-events still need to be consistently reminded to heed them. Despite cosmetic changes in the International Olympic Committee in response to its notorious corruption, continuous and dedicated global monitoring and better regulation to uphold all human rights in the context of these spatially diverse mega events.


Image on frontpage: Logo and flag of the Olympic Games with the Eiffel Tower: Source: US Olympic and Paralympic Museum. Photo on this page: French police française evict migrants from a squat in a disused industrial building in l`Île-Saint-Denis, near Paris, not far from the Olympic athletes’ village, 26 April 2023. Source: Layli Foroudi/ Reuters.



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