The wrong track

Instead of flagging human rights abuses in Bahrain, F1 is choosing to ignore the grim reality

At left, protesters in Bahrain are calling for democratic reform and an end to human rights violations, photo by Al Jazeera English. At right, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone denies there are any 'problems' in the country, photo by Silverstone Circuits Limited. Both obtained through Flickr via Creative Commons license.

“On the track, Bahrain is going to be all about tyre wear”, it states on the Formula 1 website, reporting on their big race event in Bahrain, which begins tomorrow 20 April.

Off the track, however, is another story. Human rights violations, torture, indefinite detentions, judicial harassment, and a uniformly violent crackdown on democratic protesters throughout the last year. Demonstrations early last spring and the brutal state response caused F1 to cancel last year’s race. This year, however, they say the race will continue, despite a wave of outcry from human rights defenders.

The demonstrators are aptly using the Formula 1 grand prix to highlight these crimes committed by the overly image-conscious Bahraini regime and royal family. For example, last year they hired a U.S.-based public relations firm for $40,000 a month, plus expenses to quell their increasingly tainted international reputation. Just take a look at Twitter, where a huge conglomerate of human rights defenders and reform activists have taken advantage of the well-connected island nation to spread information, videos, pictures and news stories to highlight these human rights atrocities to the world. Zainab al-Khawaja and Maryam al-Khawaja, human rights activists and daughters of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, are among most followed Bahrainis on Twitter. In more recent months, the #Bahrain feeds have become more muddled in a social media battle as pro-regime and royal family supporters have stormed in, attempting to overwhelm the opposition with their own technology and tools.

And then there’s Formula 1, the singular event that unequivocally puts Bahrain on the map, and furthermore has previously showcased the capital Manama and the island nation as a “developed” “Western” ally in the Middle East (don’t forget, Bahrain has received both military, financial and symbolic support from the U.S.which has a key naval base on the island – and European nations in the past). F1 two years ago brought in more than 100,000 visitors and an estimated half-billion dollars in revenue. Pushing the event forth and bringing back Formula 1, is simply a tactic for the Bahraini government to rebrand itself on the world stage, pretend that their so-called reforms have worked, and sweep away the human rights violations, crimes of torture, and the ongoing protests for a true democracy underneath the screeching rubber tyres.

And the Formula 1 organisation, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, and the teams participating in the Bahrain grand prix have much to answer for; their decision to move forth and participate in this shameful event not only aids the regime’s purpose for image-making, but thus allows these crimes to continue unabated and without redress for the victims. Instead, these are there excuses:

Bernie Ecclestone, chief executive, Formula One
“I’m happy our position is quite clear. We don’t get involved in politics in a country. There’s nothing happening. I know people here, it’s all very peaceful.”

Ross Brawn, principal, Mercedes team
“We have to take the advice of people who have all the information. We have reassurances from the FIA that we can have a safe race.”

Sebastian Vettel, driver, Red Bull
“I think it is safe enough to go and we should go there and race and not worry about something that is not our own business.”

Jenson Button, driver, McLaren
“I look to the governing body to decide whether we go to Bahrain or not. I don’t know all the facts; hopefully they can make the right call.”

There are simply no neutral parties when it comes to human rights violations and torture. By making these claims – Bahrain is peaceful, drivers should not get involved in political affairs, that nothing is happening – is, at best, highly naïve and is, more likely, that those in a position to take a stand instead are burying their heads in the sand. F1 leaders, teams and drivers, in a highly visible position in this debate, should rather use that platform to call out the Bahraini government for their crimes. International sporting events and their participants have a unique position to push forth change, and those in the Bahrain F1 event should use it. We can hope that, for example, the BBC, which is “contractually obligated” to broadcast the event, will not sideline the protests and demonstrations. Instead, we hope they use the F1 broadcast to show the awful truths Bahrain is keeping away from the track.


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