Human rights organisations have urged FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem to tear up new regulations which prevent drivers from voicing political views.
Revisions to the International Sporting Code which came into effect at the beginning of the year forbid “the general making and display of political, religious and personal statements or comments” by drivers “in violation of the general principle of neutrality promoted by the FIA under its Statutes, unless previously approved in writing”.
The revision has caused concern among human rights groups, and The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy wrote to Ben Sulayem today and criticised the change.
“We believe this will suppress the freedom of speech of Formula One (F1) drivers and teams and prevent them from making their voice heard on key issues including human rights and racism,” wrote BIRD’s director Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei in the letter, seen by RaceFans.
“This move appears to be a reaction to drivers, in particular Lewis Hamilton, raising their concerns about the locations chosen for F1 races, including the human rights records of host countries and making powerful interventions where your own organisation has been silent,” added the letter, which was copied to F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, plus representatives of F1 teams and drivers including Hamilton and Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff.
Alwadaei said his organisation has not had “meaningful” interaction with the FIA since Ben Sulayem took over from his predecessor Jean Todt at the end of 2021.
“On 19th March 2021, when the Federation Internationale d’Automobile (FIA) was under Jean Todt’s leadership, BIRD held a meeting with Onika Millar, a senior FIA representative, in the presence of a former UN high commissioner Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad,” Alwadaei wrote. “During this meeting, which was our last meaningful engagement with the FIA, a potential FIA policy and commitments on human rights were discussed and we were given the encouraging assurance that your predecessor was keen for the FIA to adopt a human rights policy.
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“Unfortunately, Jean Todt’s presidency ended without a human rights policy in place and it is not clear whether this is still something the FIA is working towards under your leadership or not.” Alwadaei said a letter sent to Ben Sulayem on behalf of 90 European legislators in March last year had not received a response despite follow-up enquiries made by a British member of parliament and a lord.
“This sets a dangerous precedent that the FIA will deliberately ignore credible human rights concerns and criticism of the organisation and F1,” he stated.
Alwadaei questioned how the FIA could attempt to restrict drivers’ expressions when the governing body already takes actions on political grounds.
“The FIA’s recent move is clearly targeted at drivers like Lewis Hamilton who has used his platform to express support for Black Lives Matter and human rights in countries with problematic human rights records, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia,” he wrote. “Throughout his career, none of the statements Lewis Hamilton has made can be considered any more political than the decision by the FIA to withdraw from racing in Russia in the last season due to its invasion of Ukraine.
“In your own statement last year, you condemned the Russian invasion and expressed “sadness and shock” for victims in Ukraine. While I applaud this statement, it is clearly a political one. If you do not believe this can be considered political, it is unclear what is. F1 drivers must be allowed to enjoy the same rights as you [the FIA] are to freely express their moral stances.”
He also claimed the FIA’s relationship with Gulf states such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates constituted a conflict of interest and said BIRD has filed a legal complaint against F1 in the UK over the extension to its Bahrain Grand Prix contract which was announced last February.
“I urge you to apply the same standards of commitment to human rights across all countries, to reverse your policy preventing F1 drivers and teams from publicly raising their concerns about the human rights record of the states which host F1 races, and for the FIA to establish a clear human rights policy,” he concluded.
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The Bahrain GP was cancelled in 2011 after the government suppressed demonstrations by pro-democracy protesters, resulting in violent clashes, deaths and arrests. The race returned to the calendar the following year but human rights groups have repeatedly urged those involved in the race to speak up for those sentenced to imprisonment or execution in the country.
Last year Hamilton said he was “very moved” to hear some Bahraini prisoners had shown their support for him after he raised concerns over the human rights situation in the country with local officials and the UK’s ambassador to the country.
F1 has continued to expand its presence in the Middle East despite criticism of some countries it visits, notably Saudi Arabia which joined the calendar in 2021. In a statement supplied to RaceFans, Alwadaei claimed the FIA and F1 were lending legitimacy to regimes which commit human rights abuses by allowing them to hold F1 races.
“When the FIA and F1 choose to grant races to some of the world’s most repressive regimes, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, they are facilitating sportswashing and allowing these dictatorships to launder their horrifying rights records,” he said.
“It is seriously disturbing to see the FIA now mimicking the tactics of its despotic business partners by attempting to muzzle the voices of critics and advocates. Where the FIA and F1 failed, it was drivers like Lewis Hamilton who stood up and called out abuse, and his vocal support for political prisoners in Bahrain shed light on appalling injustice. Now, the FIA wants to silence him and others, and punish them if they dare to speak out.
“We are saying to Mohammed Ben Sulayem that this policy is wrong and it must be reversed immediately.”
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