March 19, 2008 in Nation/World

Calls mount in EU for VIP boycott of Olympic ceremony

John Leicester Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Protesters demonstrate against the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing in front of the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Tuesday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

PARIS – Moves to punish China over its handling of violence in Tibet gained momentum Tuesday, with a novel suggestion for a mini-boycott of the Beijing Olympics by VIPs at the opening ceremony.

Such a protest by world leaders would be a huge slap in the face for China’s Communist leadership.

France’s outspoken foreign minister, former humanitarian campaigner Bernard Kouchner, said the idea “is interesting.”

Kouchner said he wants to discuss it with other foreign ministers from the 27-nation European Union next week. His comments opened a crack in what until now had been solid opposition to a full boycott, a stance that Kouchner said remains the official government position.

The idea of skipping the Aug. 8 opening ceremony “is less negative than a general boycott,” Kouchner said. “We are considering it.”

Asked about Kouchner’s statement, China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said: “Certainly I think what he said is not shared by most of the people in the world.”

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said last month that he expects many heads of state – including President Bush, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – to attend the opening ceremony.

Such an opening ceremony boycott presumably would not include the athletes, who under Olympic rules are forbidden from making any kind of protest at events or venues – including the opening ceremony.

U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said there are no rules forcing athletes to attend opening ceremonies.

“We strongly encourage our athletes to participate in opening ceremonies,” Seibel said. “It is a tremendous honor to walk into the Olympic Stadium behind the flag of your nation, and to do so in a ceremony honoring and celebrating athletes from around the world.”

The violent protests in Tibet, the most serious challenge in almost two decades to China’s rule in the region, are forcing governments and human rights campaigners to re-examine their approach to the Aug. 8-24 games.

Human Rights Watch, which has not been pushing for a boycott, may soon change its stance and urge heads of state not to go to the opening ceremony, said Sophie Richardson, the New York-based group’s Asia advocacy director.

So far, the group has been suggesting that foreign leaders “think long and hard” about whether they want to be seen alongside China’s leadership, she said in a telephone interview.

“Their presence at the games is going to be represented and reported by the Chinese government as a sign of approval,” she added.

Prince Charles already has said he will skip the Olympics. He supports Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile since an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg also withdrew in February as an artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies, saying China had not done enough to halt the bloodshed in Darfur. China buys much of Sudan’s oil and supplies many of the weapons used in the Darfur conflict.

China is trying to stop any boycott movement from gathering steam.

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