THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Netherlands irked Olympics host China on Thursday by going ahead with a discussion of the country’s human rights record and the Games, despite a warning by the Chinese ambassador that the debate was offensive.
Attending the event in a crowded conference room in The Hague were the foreign minister, Dutch celebrity Erik van Muiswinkel who urged Dutch athletes to boycott the Olympics, NGO groups and political activists.
“In the run-up to the games, it’s clear that human rights is an issue we should address,” said Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, leading the lively and at times heated discussion.
“We are trying step by step. If China has the Olympic Games at this stage and shows itself to the world, with the opening up of the country I’m convinced that dialogue on human rights will take place.”
China’s ambassador to the Netherlands, in an article published in a Dutch newspaper on Thursday, expressed disapproval of the way in which human rights have been linked with the Olympics in recent discussions.
“A connection is being made between international political issues and the Olympic Games in Beijing. We disapprove of such a connection as it does not match the Olympic principles,” ambassador Xue Hanqin wrote in de Volkskrant.
“We find it less acceptable that the image of China in the Western world is damaged with unfounded claims. Such behavior contravenes the Olympic spirit and most of all hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.”
Members of Tibetan groups, an organization representing the interests of the banned Chinese spiritual group Falun Gong and rights activists queued up at the microphone to express their views, many demanding a boycott of the Games.
“What are you doing to stop the persecution?”, “Sport doesn’t live in a vacuum”, and “We’re being pushed under the table” were among the emotional and frustrated pleas made by such groups.
Verhagen said that a boycott would be counterproductive, and that dialogue would achieve more. But he expressed concern that respect for human rights in China seemed to be deteriorating in the run-up to the Games.
“You do see a worsening situation if you look to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and we have to address these issues with China,” he said.
China’s human rights record has come under increasingly close scrutiny ahead of the Olympics, and some groups have expressed concern about forced evictions resulting from infrastructure projects linked to the summer Games.
China routinely defends its rights record by saying its citizens enjoy greater freedom than three decades ago and that feeding and clothing 1.3 billion people takes precedence over human rights.
Editing by Tim Pearce