Raising rights inside & outside Formula One’s big Bahrain tent

Plenty of folk argued that the original decision to bring Formula One racing to Bahrain had everything to do with business and nothing to do with the celebration of sport.

Human rights defenders took them at their word. They effectively gave up appealing to fans to boycott their sports in defence of political prisoners and teargassed protestors away from the tracks.

Instead they took the case to the emerging forums that are trying to bring higher standards of corporate social responsibility, from labour rights and the environment, telecoms and now racing.

Arguing successfully that Formula One had a case to answer to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in that it had breached OECD standards, they negotiated the industry into adopting a human rights policy.

Just days before the April 18 Grand Prix race on the island, Formula One has promised to develop and implement a due diligence policy requiring analyses and action to mitigate any human rights impact that its races have on any host country — not just Bahrain.

It was a striking result for jailed Bahraini dissident Nabeel Rajab and his colleagues from the Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) lobby group. They had pilloried Formula One’s grandees for lack of due diligence in assessing whether the staging of Grand Prix races in Bahrain added to the human rights crisis that troubles the countries.


Nabil Rajab

Rajab, a member of ADHRB’s advisory board, was arrested as the mediation process was ongoing and only two weeks before the 2015 race. They read this as a signal that the government will broach no criticism or dissent before or during the race, which has previously attracted significant anti-government protests. The US State Department has called for his immediate release.

Amnesty International is shortly to publish a major new report on Bahrain which is expected to show clear signs of a continuing crackdown in the country.The ADHRB argued that that “holding Grand Prix events in Bahrain in 2012, 2013 and 2014 has helped to present an international image of Bahrain at odds with a reality of ongoing human rights abuses”. The races gave rise to new human rights abuses by security forces responding to protests around the event.

The Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled in 2011 after a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. At least 35 people were killed; protesters say the death toll was far higher. Before the 2012 race, mechanics were caught up in an confrontation during which a petrol bomb bounced off the roof of their car.

Though a success for the rights’ defenders strategy of seeking change from inside, from the stakeholders that mattered, its management and sponsors, the lasting change will take time. It took the FIA years to turn around a similar culture of indifference that allowed driver deaths on the track to become commonplace, collateral damage on the way to billion-dollar profitability off it.

Then emerging guidelines on safety required a response from the industry, the response demanded a strategy and the strategy proof of impact, effective action to reduce the death toll — and the negative publicity that came with it.

Major sports, locked away behind stadium walls and wire fences patrolled by private security, cultivated their elitism all the better to sell luxury goods to the elite. What went on outside their palaces mattered little.

It allowed Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone to describe the run-up to the 2012 race as “very quiet and peaceful” amidst reports of police using water cannons, stun grenades and plastic bullets against pro‑democracy demonstrators across the country. Formula 1 Association president Jean Todt made the decision to run the 2011 race based on no guidelines and the feeblest of evidence.

But corporate social responsibility is not just moral. It is also a response to the challenge that bad publicity and damaged reputation poses to shareholder profitability. Why try to reduce costs locally and hike profits by accepting massive subsidies from authoritarian states to stage events, only to lose income at the other end as sponsors blink at the bad news and the twitterstorms around it? Addressing human rights responsibilities was just good business logic for Formula One.

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