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Formula One: Lewis Hamilton urges push for human rights ahead of Bahrain GP

UK MPs and rights groups have raised concerns this week over abuses and sportswashing around the event
'The human rights issue in so many of the places we go to is a consistent and massive problem,' said Hamilton (Reuters)

Ahead of Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton has said Formula One has a “consistent and massive” problem it must address with human rights abuses in countries where it holds races.

The seven-times world champion was speaking on Thursday in the kingdom, which has been accused by UK MPs and rights groups this week of sportswashing, torture and oppression.

“The human rights issue in so many of the places we go to is a consistent and massive problem,” said Hamilton. 

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“It is very, very important. This year has shown how important it is for not only us as a sport but for all the sports around the world to utilise the platform they have and push for change."

On Tuesday, 30 cross-party UK MPs wrote to F1’s chief executive, Chase Carey, highlighting a host of concerns with the oppression and maltreatment of citizens in Bahrain.

Layla Moran, foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, sent the letter on behalf of the signatories, stating that human rights must be made a priority.

“It’s deeply disappointing that we haven’t seen more progress from F1 when it comes to sportswashing and Bahrain’s human rights record... We can’t let human rights ever be a secondary consideration,” she said. 

Labour Party MP for Hammersmith, Andy Slaugher, said that Formula One has long been silent on the issue of human rights.

“At a time when many sportsmen and women are speaking up more clearly on human rights issues and addressing the concerns of their fans, the long silence of Formula 1 on the appalling human rights record of countries like Bahrain, which host lucrative races and sportswash their reputation while clamping down on their own citizens for the race period, becomes more noticeable and less defensible,” Slaugher said.

Letters to Hamilton

Meanwhile, a collection of human rights groups, led by the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird), also wrote to Carey on Wednesday, claiming that the Bahrain Grand Prix “has become a focal point of popular protest and serious human rights abuses have been committed by Bahraini security forces against protesters”.

A document put together by Liberal Democrat peer Paul Scriven, Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, the director of the Bird, and Husain Abdulla, the executive director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, had collated personal letters from three Bahrainis to Hamilton. 

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The authors, who outline some of the human rights abuses in the country, are described as current and former political prisoners.

Confirming he had recieved the letters, Hamilton said: "I've not had a lot of time to digest them so that's something I definitely need to take some time to do over the coming days."

Authorities in Bahrain, which is hosting two consecutive Grand Prix, have since issued a statement rejecting claims of human rights abuses and sportswashing.

'Cynical strategy'

Online, a social media campaign, using the hashtag #Race4Rights, has gained traction, and is being used to highlight human rights abuses in the country and pressure Formula One to make human rights issues a priority. 

Saudi Arabia, which will be hosting a Grand Prix next year, has also previously been accused of sportswashing their human rights record. 

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The long term partnership with Formula One is understood to be for ten years.

Last month, Minky Worden, the Human Rights Watch director overseeing sport, said that hosting sporting events was part of a strategy to gloss over human rights issues.

“Sporting bodies like Formula One and the FIA cannot ignore the fact they and fans are being used for sportswashing... it is part of a cynical strategy to distract from Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, detention and torture of human rights defenders and women’s rights activists,” said Wolden.

In 2015, again ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula One published a statement committing the sport to respect for human rights.