Picture credit: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The hypocrisy of cultural boycotts

Spare us the corporate virtue-signalling

Today, everyone is a foreign policy expert; there’s no escaping pub bores holding court about the traction of tank tracks on mud and iPhone generals quick to proffer military strategy on social media. And yet, just a few weeks ago, most of us in the UK had no idea who President Zelensky was, let alone how to correctly spell and pronounce “Kyiv”.

Why do some human rights abuses matter more than others?

Public engagement in current affairs is great — it is what democracy is all about. Without question or equivocation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shameful and unjust. The human urge to “do something”, to alleviate suffering and take a stand against cruelty, is understandable. But when multinationals change their logos to yellow and blue, and when organisations “cancel” Russian artists, athletes and performers, it seems fair to ask why some human rights abuses matter more than others.

From the Bolshoi ballet to Compare the Market’s meerkats, anything with the taint of Russia is being rapidly expunged from the cultural sphere. Cynical, perhaps, but it seems social media optics may be as much behind the Putin purge as corporate social responsibility.

Take, for example, the banning of Russian athletes from Beijing’s 2022 Winter Paralympics. Some have argued that this sends a necessary message to Moscow; indeed, the move was welcomed by Nadine Dorries, UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. But while there has been widespread approval for the International Paralympic Committee’s ban on Russian athletes, the fact that the games are taking place in a country with a long-standing record of human rights abuses has been largely ignored.

A protester stands with a placard as the colours of the Ukrainian flag are projected onto Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square in central London, on 25 February 2022, to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of the country. Picture credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

FIFA have yet to condemn the effective house arrest of Qatari women

From the occupation of Tibet to the disappearance of dissidents, the Chinese administration is blood-soaked. According to Amnesty International, since 2017 an estimated one million or more Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minority groups have been arbitrarily detained without trial and subjected to political indoctrination in “transformation-through-education” centres. And yet, ongoing ethnic cleansing apparently does not preclude China from hosting the winter Paralympics. In this context, banning Russian players seems like nothing more than elaborate window-dressing.

Similarly, after responding to a request from Ukrainian Association of Football to postpone their matches, FIFA issued a statement proclaiming, “deepest solidarity to everybody affected by what is happening in Ukraine.” Both FIFA and UEFA removed Russian teams from all their fixtures until “football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people”.

And yet, in November the world’s finest male football players will be kicking off in Qatar. With laws largely based on Sharia, Qatar is no a fluffy state; a recent UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention noted that women under the age of 25 must obtain the permission of their male guardians to engage in daily activities. The report found “women were prevented from leaving their family homes without the permission of their legal guardians, resulting in de facto deprivation of liberty by their families.” Yet FIFA have yet to condemn the effective house arrest of Qatari women.

It’s unfair to expect individuals to have a grasp of the geopolitical and social forces that govern nation states, but such ignorance is inexcusable (not to mention unlikely) from the global brands which benefit from those states. The anger toward the Russian government and wave of solidarity toward Ukraine from ordinary people is both staggering and heartening. It follows that some corporations are keen to publicly position themselves on the side of the righteous — to capitalise on the public mood. Perhaps the public relations teams releasing comments on their behalf are sincere in their sentiment. But looked at through a wider lens, statements and gestures banning individuals and standing in solidarity with the oppressed ring hollow.

The corporate conscience needs an audience; and in countries where atrocities are less visible, in particular where social media use is restricted, solidarity is squashed at the bottom of a bank vault. Perhaps some states are too useful to cancel.

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