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 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. In the government's highest-level comment on the protests in Tibet and neighboring provinces, Premier Wen Jiabao accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of orchestrating the violence to taint the Olympics.
"The Beijing Olympics will be a grand gathering for people from around the world," Wen said. "We need to respect the principles of the Olympics and the Olympic Charter and we should not politicize the games."
The International Olympic Committee has been forced to lobby against boycott calls and the possibility of the games turning into a political demonstration.
The IOC's basic position, as stated repeatedly by Rogge, is that it is a sports organization and unable to pressure China or any other country on political matters.
IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau reiterated that the Olympic Charter forbids protests at any games sites. Her comment came in response to suggestions from some French lawmakers that Olympic athletes wear Tibetan armbands or scarves on medal podiums or at the opening ceremony.
"It's unsportsmanlike to want to gag athletes, to follow in the footsteps of totalitarianism," said one of the lawmakers, Gerard Bapt.
Moreau would not get into specifics on how the IOC might respond to protests in Beijing.
"Lots of people and lots of organizations are commenting at the moment. We don't want to get dragged into the debate. We have rules and procedures, which means that when things happen, we can deal with them. We are not going to start commenting about what might, or what might not, happen," she said.
The consensus is that a total boycott would only hurt the athletes, as shown by the political boycotts of the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympics. The Dalai Lama has also said a boycott is not the answer.
European calls for a boycott of the opening ceremony predate the protests in Tibet, which began peacefully March 10 on the anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising.
A Dutch lawmaker, Joel Voordewind, had already suggested last month that countries "take part in the games but skip the party beforehand."
But the Tibetan unrest has added urgency to the issue by refocusing attention on China's human rights record.
Even before the Tibetan protests, three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands called on Rogge to speak out on behalf of all athletes urging China to improve its human rights situation. On Monday, world 50-meter butterfly champion Roland Schoeman of South Africa said the IOC "should stand up and say, 'The way these people (Tibetans) are being treated is not acceptable."'
Luciano Barra, a longtime Italian Olympic official who was deputy CEO of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, also believes the IOC should prepared to do and say more.
"For a question of credibility, the public opinion will say, `You are just thinking about the games, not thinking about millions of people and freedom," he said.
About 400 people chanted a prayer and waved Tibetan flags Tuesday at a protest near the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Wangpo Tethong, who presides over the self-declared Tibetan National Olympic Committee, said Rogge "must clearly denounce the killings and force China to stop it."
For some Olympic watchers, the violent demonstrations in Tibet come as no surprise and are something the IOC can't be expected to resolve.
"This is what people anticipated when giving the games to Beijing. The Tibetan issue is always there. This was clearly going to be part of the last six months of the run-up to the games," John MacAloon, a University of Chicago professor and Olympic historian, said in an interview.
IOC executive board member and marketing chief Gerhard Heiberg said Olympics officials can't lecture China but does raise human rights and other issues in its regular, private contacts with the Chinese.
"We still maintain that the Olympics are mainly a sports event and we do not want to get involved in a sovereign state's domestic and foreign policy," the Norwegian said in an interview. "Formally we keep out of this, but of course, behind the scenes there can be silent diplomacy, trying to explain how things could hurt the success of the games. This is also important."
Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders came out in favor Tuesday of an opening ceremony boycott by heads of state and government, and royalty. The president of the EU Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, also said politicians should consider staying away from the ceremony if the violence continues.
"Calling for a complete boycott of the Olympic games is not a good solution. The aim is not to deprive athletes of the world's biggest sports event or to deprive the public of the spectacle," said Reporters Without Borders. "But it would be outrageous not to firmly demonstrate one's disagreement with the Chinese government's policies."