When can the IOC investigate National Olympic Committees?

Published 23 July 2019 By: Nikki Dryden

Olympic Rings

The case of Hakeem Al-Araibi, an international football player and refugee, freed1 from a Thai jail in early 2019, has a happy ending for Mr. Al-Araibi who is safely home in Australia. However, his arrest in Thailand and extradition request by Bahrain, a country he fled from after claiming he was tortured, is deeply connected to the politics of FIFA2 and the response3 from the organisation was a true test of their relatively new Human Rights Policy4.

In the authors opinion, to date, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has yet to act decisively, despite evidence that Mr. Al-Arabi’s case, and over a hundred more like it, are part of the Bahrain Olympic Committee’s pattern and practice of Olympic Charter violations that have warranted the suspension of similarly situated countries in the past.

Following FIFA’s lead, the IOC has made efforts to promote refugee5 and human rights. The announcement of an IOC Advisory Committee on Human Rights6, led by a former United Nations head of human rights, HRH Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, means the IOC wants to be taken seriously in this area.

The IOC has suspended several National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from the Olympic Movement who it deems lack autonomy from their state governments. Suspension has also been handed down to NOCs which violate human rights. But how and when does the IOC intervene in a country’s National Olympic Committee?

This article examines cases in which NOCs have been suspended by the IOC, including India, Kuwait and Kenya for their autonomy issues as well as Afghanistan and South Africa so human rights abuses. The article then examines the circumstances surrounding the Bahrain Olympic Committee and suggests that there is an arguable case based upon precedent that it too should be investigated by the IOC.

The Olympic Charter

According to the Olympic Charter, the role and competences of the NOC outline how they are required to promote and protect the Olympic Movement in their country, ensure compliance with the Olympic Charter and promote the Fundamental Principles and values of Olympism.

The rules are also very specific. Rule 27: Mission and Role of the NOCs states they have the responsibility to:

  • take action against all forms of discrimination and violence in sport;

  • encourage and support measures linked to medical care for, and the health of, the athletes; and

  • preserve its autonomy and resist all pressures, including, but not limited to, political, legal, religious or economic pressures which might prevent it from complying with the Olympic Charter

ensure that governments or other public authorities shall not designate any members of an NOC

The IOC Code of Ethics further governs the behavior of NOCs, which must maintain harmonious relations with state authorities, while respecting the principle of autonomy as set out in the Olympic Charter and refrain from placing themselves in any conflict of interests.

Rule 59.1.4 of the Olympic Charter outlines the IOC’s power to sanction NOCs. Led by the IOC Executive Board, suspension and its threat, is a common tool of the IOC to control sport around the world, in particular when it comes to supporting autonomy7.

Autonomy and the Olympic Movement

In addition to the role and competencies of the NOCs listed above, the Olympic Charter states that,

…NOCs…shall not associate themselves with any activity which would be in contradiction with the Olympic Charter…The NOCs must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or economic pressures which may prevent them from complying with the Olympic Charter.”

After numerous reports8 of financial mismanagement including outright theft of goods and cash from Kenya’s Olympic athletes,9 the Sports Minister in Kenya set out to investigate the corruption and scandal plaguing the Kenya Olympic Committee (KOC) with a particular focus on Rio 2016. This investigation of the KOC violated the Olympic Charter’s rules because sports ministers, as government officials, are not allowed to intervene in domestic Olympic matters.

This investigation was thus considered interference by the IOC who condemned the Kenyan’ Sports Ministers actions in 2016. However, instead of suspension, the IOC worked with the Sports Ministry and KOC. Kenyan born and educated Professor Simiyu of the University of Texas commented:

The Rio fiasco presented the IOC with a good opportunity to intervene and demand action for long-term reform. This was better than responding with a suspension for political interference. The IOC’s collaboration with the government and the national committee to create a more responsive, transparent and responsible organization is commendable.10

Unfortunately the KOC’s fate remains uncertain as seven former KOC and government officials have been charged with corruption11.

In 2012, the Indian Olympic Association was suspended due to government interference in the IOA’s election process. Many issues were resolved, but when the IOA failed to meet all of the IOC’s demands, they were threatened with expulsion from the Olympic Movement altogether.

"The (Olympic) charter is clear," IOC President Thomas Bach said at the time. "If the suspension leads to no solution, then further steps could be withdrawal of recognition."12

Bach continued,

 “It’s about principles. Good governance for the IOC is a key issue. We need to be strict and to make sure the rules of good governance are being applied.”

At the time that India was suspended, Sri Lanka and Egypt were threatened with suspension while Ghana, Panama and Kuwait have all been suspended in the last decade for autonomy related issues.

Kuwait was suspended by the IOC twice; once in 2010 and again in 2015,13 the latter lasting until 2018 and encompassing a law suit by the Kuwait NOC against the IOC. The 2015 suspension was due to government interference and conflicts in the sports law. The Kuwait government spent several years in battle with the IOC before amending its sports law to conform to the Olympic Charter.

Specifically the IOC had imposed conditions14 on Kuwait in 2017 in order to lift the suspension including that all laws must conform to the Olympic Charter, all board changes imposed on the NOC must be revoked, and all legal cases inside and outside Kuwait against the IOC and other international sporting organizations should be dropped.

Suspension and Expulsion for Human Rights Abuses

The Fundamental Principles of the IOC Code of Ethics require NOCs to respect international conventions on protecting human rights (only insofar as they apply to the Olympic Games’ activities).

More broadly they also specifically require respect for human dignity; rejection of discrimination of any kind on whatever grounds, be it…religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin…and rejection of all forms of harassment and abuse, be it physical, professional or sexual, and any physical or mental injuries.

For Afghanistan and South Africa, the IOC created special committees and delegations to investigate human rights abuses, define Olympic Charter violations, recommend suspensions and eventually to also review progress, and outline conditions for removal of suspension and integration back into the Olympic Movement.

In 1996, shortly after the Taliban came to power, the IOC suspended the Afghanistan NOC from the Olympic Movement due to their inability to function effectively, and included in their reasoning the Taliban’s prohibition against women competing in sport15. An IOC spokesperson said at the time that the old committee, "does not control the sport anymore.16 It's practically disbanded. Its president is in exile."

Once the Taliban was removed from power, the IOC sent a delegation17 to Afghanistan to prepare for the possible lifting of sanctions. Headed by Director of NOCs Relations and Olympic Solidarity Pere Miro, the delegation “met with officials of the newly re-formed NOC, with staff members and representatives of National Federations - both Olympic and non-Olympic, and with athletes, male and female.” The delegation was tasked with reviewing the progress the NOC had made against the Olympic Charter as well as “athletes' potential in terms of sports/disciplines, training conditions, representation of women, and potential scholarship holders for the Athens Games next year.” The suspension was lifted in time for Afghanistan to compete in the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.

Although South Africa did not compete at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics after African countries threatened to boycott the games if South Africa competed, it was not formally expelled from the Olympic Movement until 1970. It was that year that the IOC appointed a committee to investigate and produce specific charges of violations of the Olympic Charter. The report detailed seven allegations of discrimination and IOC members voted to expel South Africa18.

The Apartheid and Olympism Committee (set up in 1988) recommended in 1991 to lift the suspension after the committee travelled to South Africa and met with sport leaders. Keba Mbaye, a Senegalese jurist led the commission19 and said “while the commission members thought that South Africa was well on its way to abolishing discrimination in sports, the commission is also hoping to encourage further reforms in opening the nation's sports training sites, competitions and financial resources to all races.

The work done by South Africa was tempered by Mbaye who said that the decision would be reversed “if patterns of discrimination against nonwhite athletes emerge either in team selection processes or in the use of training sites.” The committee set two principal conditions for the readmission of South Africa into the Olympic community: the abolition of apartheid and progress toward racial integration and unity in the nation's sports federations.


The IOC has yet to investigate the Bahrain Olympic Committee. In keeping with past precedent against other countries, there is in the author’s view an arguable case that the IOC should, at a minimum, set up a commission to investigate the Bahrain Olympic Committee (BOC) for at least three potential breaches of the Olympic Charter, which will be examined in turn below:

  • That the BOC specifically targeted and allegedly tortured athletes during the Arab Spring in violation of the Olympic Charter and Code of Ethics;

  • That the BOC lacks autonomy and good governance as has been the focus of many IOC suspension cases; and

  • That the recent detention of international footballer Hakeem Al Araibi is evidence that the violations of Olympic Law continue.

Sport and the Arab Spring

According to the US Department of State Country Report on Bahrain in 2012,20 beginning in February 2011, Bahrain experienced a sustained period of unrest including mass protests calling for political reform. In 2011, 52 persons died in incidents linked to the unrest, and hundreds more were injured or arrested. Many of Bahrain’s top sportspeople including athletes joined in these protests calling for political reform, which continued into 2012.21

In April 2011, during the Arab Spring, the President of the BOC, Prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (Prince Nasser), son of the King of Bahrain, arguably violated the Olympic Charter when he reportedly ordered22 the creation of a special committee to specifically identify athletes who took part in protests against his family’s ruling leaders.

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism state that the practice of sport is a human right and that every athlete must have that right without discrimination. In the author’s view, when Prince Nasser issued a directive “to form an official investigation committee to look into violations committed by some of those who affiliate to the sport movement,23 he violated the fundamental principles of Olympism.

Article 2 of the Code of Ethics (Integrity of Conduct) also requires NOCs to use due care and diligence in fulfilling their mission:

At all times, [NOCs] must act with the highest degree of integrity, and particularly when taking decisions, they must act with impartiality, objectivity, independence and professionalism…They must not act in a manner likely to tarnish the reputation of the Olympic Movement.

Yet it was reported that according to the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, "Following [Prince Nasser’s] directives more than 150 professional athletes, coaches and referees were subjected to arbitrary arrests, night raids, detention, abuse and torture by electric cables and other means."24

This group of athletes included football players, weight lifters and even table tennis players:

All of those [athletes] interviewed told the same story, they are now jobless, running out of money and living in legal limbo. Most have not been able to return to their government jobs, all are banned from playing for the national team…25

Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, grandson of the former King of Bahrain, then President of the Bahrain Football Association (and now President of the Asian Football Confederation and Vice-President of FIFA) was named by Prince Nasser to head up the committee to investigate the athletes. While Sheikh Salman denies torturing athletes, he admitted that he was proposed to lead a fact-finding committee in relation to the events of 2011, but that the “committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever.26

Prince Nasser went further than simply creating a committee to target athletes. He also went on national television to denounce them. In 2011, after several football players who reported being tortured were condemned on state television, Prince Nasser called them traitors and spies, giving a televised warning that:

Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head...Anyone who involved himself in these matters and was part of it will be held accountable. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician…Today is judgment day…Bahrain is an island and there is no escape.27

Prince Nasser’s brother, also the Secretary-General of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, further defended the targeting of athletes in contravention of Olympic law28.

The Bahrain Olympic Committee’s autonomy

All evidence that the author has investigated points to the fact that the BOC has always been and remains run by members of the ruling Bahrain political, military and royal family, the Al-Khalifas since its formation in 1979.

As of early 2019, the BOC website did not list their board members, as the links were broken or removed and by mid-2019 the entire website was (and remains at the time writing) under construction29. It is unclear whom current board members are, however of the 12 seats available, many members of the Bahraini Royal Family ran for election to the Board in 2017 and/ or are referenced as board members in other media including:

  • Shaikha Hayat bint Abdulaziz Al Khalifa (table tennis),

  • Shaikh Mohammed bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa (swimming),

  • Shaikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa (cycling),

  • Shaikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa (tennis), and

  • Shaikh Hamad bin Rashid Al Khalifa (shooting).

As noted in the cases of India and Kenya, the IOC intervened when political or other government bodies interfered with domestic Olympic affairs. In Bahrain, politicians are also BOC members including Shaikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa who is the Treasurer of the BOC and Ambassador to the United States, and Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, a board member of the BOC as well as Deputy Prime Minister.

Finally, BOC President, Prince Nasser, is a political and military leader of Bahrain.

In addition to being BOC President, Prince Nassar is the Chairman of the Supreme Council for Youth and Sports, while Sheik Salman is the General Secretary. These connections between the state sports entity and the NOC has been targeted by the IOC in several countries including Kuwait, Kenya, and India because it equates to government interference in sport. Yet in Bahrain it remains unchecked by the IOC.

Prince Nasser himself is one of the King of Bahrain’s sons. In September 2017, the King appointed Prince Nasser30 to serve as a member of the Supreme Defense Council (SDC). Prince Nasser is also the commander of the Bahrain Defense Force Royal Guard, the elite military unit that been deployed in Yemen. The SDC is made up exclusively of royal family members including the king, the crown prince, and the prime minister is considered to be the country’s highest defense authority and presides over major national security decisions.

In 2017, Prince Nasser won re-election for President of the BOC against no other candidates.31

In the author’s opinion, the lack of independence between the BOC, the Bahrain political, military and royal family is considerably deeper than the interference of governments in Kenya and India, whose original purpose for interference was in fact ending what it saw as corruption, fraud and bad governance within their respective NOCs.

The Extradition Request for Hakeem Al-Araibi violates International law

While Mr. Hakeem Al-Araibi is now safely back in Australia, his case is evidence that the events of the Arab Spring and interconnectedness of sport, politics, military and royalty in Bahrain continue into 2019 arguably in violation of Olympic and international law.

Mr. Al-Araibi is a former international football player from Bahrain. In Bahrain he was targeted by the BOC and tortured because he was an athlete, “I was arrested on my birthday in 2012 and when they took me to the police station they started torturing me for five hours…The torture was all in my legs, they used to tell me that I was not going to play again. They beat my legs very hard, I couldn't walk from the pain."32 He fled to Australia where he was granted refugee status. He has continued to speak out33 against members of the Al-Khalifa family, in particular Sheik Salman.

Under international law, refugees are given extra protections. They cannot be refouled, (returned) to the country from which they fled persecution (Art. 33(1) of the Refugee Convention) nor can they be subject to a red notice, issued by states for the arrest of citizens and managed by Interpol.

Yet Mr. Al-Araibi, a refugee, was unlawfully arrested subject to a Bahrain red notice34 and held for 77 days in detention in Thailand35 facing unlawful refoulement to the country he fled before being freed.

These are serious breaches of international refugee law particularly given the IOC’s commitment to and promoter of the Refugee Olympic Team. The IOC arguably has obligations to uphold international law36 more broadly given its status as Official Observer of the United Nations. Thus, in the author’s view, it is essential that the IOC Executive Board investigates the case of Mr. Al-Araibi and his torture in Bahrain at the hands of Bahrain’s leaders.

IOC Athletes’ Rights Declaration

In October 2018, before Mr. Al-Araibi’s arrest and before Bahrain requested his extradition in January 2019, the IOC Athletes’ Rights Declaration came into effect and outlines a set of rights and responsibilities for athletes within the Olympic Movement and within the jurisdiction of its members.

It is inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other internationally recognised human rights standards, principles and treaties. Its objective is to guide the Olympic Movement’s actions. All members of the Olympic Movement, particularly…the National Olympic Committees, will strive to promote respect for these rights and responsibilities.37

Although seeming to lack effective mechanisms for enforcement and remedy, the Athletes’ Rights Declaration promotes the ability and opportunity of athletes to:

  • Practise sport and compete without being subject to discrimination on the basis of…religion…political or other opinion, national or social origin…or other immutable status.

  • The protection of mental and physical health, including a safe competition and training environment and protection from abuse and harassment.

  • Freedom of expression.

  • Due process, including the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial panel, the right to request a public hearing and the right to an effective remedy.

In the author’s view, the campaign by Bahrain to refoul Mr. Al-Araibi as evidenced by their Interpol Red Notice38 request from November 2018 and extradition request39 in January 2019 violates the Athletes’ Rights Declaration.

Mr. Al-Araibi has the right to practice sport without being targeted by the Bahrain government for his religious and political beliefs. He has the right not to be tortured and then to speak about his torture and detention. He also has a right to a fair hearing, which relates to Mr. Al-Araibi’s conviction and sentencing in absentia in Bahrain to 10 years in prison for offenses including an attack on a police station. The court that ruled on Mr. Al-Araibi’s case did not take into consideration evidence that he was playing football on live TV at the time of the alleged crime40.

As a leader of the Bahrain ruling royal family, the Bahrain military and the Bahrain Olympic Committee it is, in the author’s view, irrelevant if Prince Nasser or the BOC ordered these requests because there appears to be no clear delineation between the government, sports authorities, or military/royal leaders. The lack of autonomy of the BOC from the rest of the leadership is the exact type of interconnectedness that the IOC has penalized in other countries.

The Fundamental Principles of Olympism incorporate human rights, ethical, and non-discrimination language,

The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind… such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status…

Yet Mr. Al-Araibi and 150 other sportspeople in Bahrain had their rights and freedoms violated based on their religious and political opinions at the hands of members of Bahrain’s sporting leaders. It was their membership in sport that made them targets. The lack of thorough investigation and the IOC’s continued grant of international authority on the Bahrain Olympic Committee has further empowered the Al-Khalifa family to act with impunity in continuing to silence Mr. Al-Araibi

The IOC is the self-proclaimed “Supreme Authority” over the Olympic Movement, Mr. Al-Araibi’s case and the circumstances which led to his detention fall squarely within the remit of the IOC. If the actions of Bahrain’s sport leaders go uninvestigated by the IOC, the Olympic Movement is, in the author’s view, deeply compromised.

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Nikki Dryden

Nikki Dryden

Nikki is a two-time Olympic swimmer from Canada and a human-rights and immigration attorney in New York. She competed at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, with a top finish of 6th place, and covered the 2004 and 2008 Olympics for SwimNews Magazine. She has a BA in International Relations from Brown University and a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School.