F1 faces legal challenge over Bahrain contract and sportswashing | Formula One

Formula One faces a legal complaint accusing it of breaching Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines after the sport concluded a deal this year extending its contract to hold races in Bahrain until 2036.

The complaint, made through the British government’s UK National Contact Point (NCP), which addresses issues of responsible business conduct, has been served by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) and two alleged torture survivors from Bahrain, Najah Yusuf and Hajer Mansoor. Yusuf was detained and abused in prison after criticism peaceful of F1 in Bahrain in 2017 and Bird maintains Mansoor was also detained and mistreated at the same time.

Bird has been campaigning to ensure F1 sticks to its commitment to respect human rights issues where it holds races. The pressure group says it has received no satisfactory response to its calls for F1 to investigate human rights issues in Bahrain and believes repression around the race has steadily become worse.

In February F1 agreed a new deal with Bahrain to host the race until 2036, the longest contract in the sport’s history, sparking Bird to adopt a formal legal approach.

The complaint alleges: “Formula One failed to engage with human rights stakeholders including human rights organisations, legislators from across Europe, victims impacted by the Formula One race and those who have faced reprisals for their human rights work.”

It accuses F1 of having failed to conduct a due diligence process in assessment of human rights before awarding the new contract and alleges that “forced disappearances, extrajudicial killing and torture” continue to occur in Bahrain.

Anti-F1 graffiti in the village of Barbar, west of Manama, the capital of Bahrain, in 2012
Anti-F1 graffiti in the village of Barbar, west of Manama, the capital of Bahrain, in 2012. Photograph: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters

The complaint specifically accuses F1 of being complicit in sportswashing, noting that the regime has used the event to promote a public display of unity within the kingdom over one of suppression. It alleges that F1 intensifies this oppression, stating: “The race has been responsible for a considerable spike in human rights abuses as the government acts to forestall and suppress protest around the time of the race.”

The intent of pursuing legal action through the UK NCP is to force the issue to the OECD, which then may take action against F1. Part of the impetus behind the sport implementing a human rights policy was because of a previous complaint made by the NCP and Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at Bird, hoped this, too, would provoke action from F1.

“It appears that Formula One has taken the decision to disengage with any stakeholders, in violation of their own policy, and has estranged themselves from all experts who attempt to warn them about the serious human rights risks posed by their activities in Bahrain,” he said.

“Our repeated attempts to engage with F1 have fallen on deaf ears, particularly since 2021, only to later learn that, in the wake of Bahrain’s horrific human rights abuses, they had been busy awarding the regime with the longest contract in motor racing history. We are now escalating the matter by taking it before the UK NCP.”

Next year Bahrain is set to hold the opening race of next season and its only pre-season test but criticism of the regime is intensifying. The Human Rights Watch group is to publish a report next week entitled: You Can’t Call Bahrain a Democracy: Bahrain’s Political Isolation Laws. It will document the Bahraini government’s use of political isolation laws and other tactics to keep activists and opposition members out of public office and public life, in what are described as further human rights abuses.

“Bahrain has spent the last decade cracking down on peaceful opposition and the political isolation laws are yet another example of the government’s repression expanding into new spheres,” said Joey Shea, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These draconian laws have made a mockery of Bahrain’s upcoming parliamentary ‘elections’, which can neither be free nor fair when you make any political opposition essentially illegal.”

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F1 has been approached but is yet to comment on the complaint. However, it has previously stated its position in relation to Bahrain. “We have always been clear with all race promoters and governments with which we deal worldwide that we take violence, abuse of human rights and repression very seriously.

“Our human rights policy is very clear and states that the Formula One companies are committed to respecting internationally recognized human rights in its operations globally and have made our position on human rights clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.”

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