World Bicycle Day: Team Bahrain McLaren sportswashing Bahrain’s human rights record 

On World Bicycle Day, SALAM DHR calls on the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the worldwide governing body for cycling, to commit to its responsibility to respect human rights in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and prevent cycling from being used by Bahrain to sports-wash its human rights violations. 

Bahrain is witnessing a deteriorating human rights situation since the 2011 uprising. The Bahraini government has been continuously arresting and prosecuting those exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly, including many athletes. Opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists are facing long-term prison sentences and are subject to torture and ill-treatment. Main opposition parties have been dissolved, independent media have been banned and online and social media activity is suppressed. In addition, the government has stripped many Bahrainis of their citizenship, a policy which has been used as an instrument to punish dissidents and activists. 

In 2017, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, a son of the ruling king of Bahrain, founded the Bahrain-Merida cycling team to promote the authoritarian country globally. In 2018, McLaren announced its partnership with Team Bahrain Merida. Now called ‘Team Bahrain McLaren’, a licensed UCI WorldTeam and mainly funded by the government of Bahrain and other global partners. 

Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa was nicknamed the “torture prince” after his involvement in torturing Bahraini dissidents. In response to the 2011 uprising, the prince has threatened athletes in a live on-air phone call saying that “whoever calls for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head, whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is. Today is the judgment day” and later tweeted “If it was up to me, I’d give them all life in prison”. In addition, as the highest sporting authority in the country and the head of Bahrain’s Olympic Committee, he created a special committee to investigate and punish sportspeople who took role in the uprising. As a result, about 150 athletes, coaches and referees have been suspended, arrested, tortured and imprisoned. 

The government of Bahrain has been continuously using sports as a tool to whitewash its human rights violations. Along with the Bahrain Grand Prix and the Royal Windsor Horse Show, Team Bahrain McLaren is a new vehicle for the Bahraini authoritarian regime to improve its reputation worldwide, attract positive press coverage and distract from its dismal human rights record. The UCI and global partners of Team Bahrain McLaren should not turn a blind eye on the continuous crackdown on dissidents, torture and other serious human rights abuses in Bahrain.

With many global partners of Team Bahrain McLaren based in OECD countries, such as LE COL, CNBC, SiDI, and others, SALAM DHR urges these enterprises to implement the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, in particular those mentioned in chapter IV on respecting human rights and preventing adverse human rights impacts directly linked to their business relationship, and accordingly end their partnership with Team Bahrain McLaren. 

Moreover, pursuant to the UCI Code of Ethics, the UCI “acknowledges its responsibility to safeguard the integrity and reputation of cycling throughout the world …. The conduct of persons bound by this Code shall reflect their support of the principles of integrity and ethics and their efforts to refrain from anything that could be harmful to these aims and objectives”. The mass violations of human rights by the Bahraini government certainly puts Team McLaren Bahrain in violation of the UCI Code of Ethics. 

SALAM DHR urges the UCI to stand up for its human rights commitments by implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and applying its Code of Ethics. Accordingly, the UCI should review the license of Team Bahrain McLaren.