Human Rights Watch has again criticised Saudi Arabia after a leading official reportedly ruled out the possibility of female athletes being sent to the 2012 Games in London.
“If the International Olympic Committee was looking for an official affirmation of Saudi discrimination against women in sports, the minister in charge just gave it,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The comments came as Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, head of the General Presidency of Youth Welfare, was quoted by local media as saying the Gulf kingdom would not endorse female athletes.
Saudi women are free to participate on their own and the presidency’s role will be limited to ensuring that their participation conforms with Islamic Sharia law, Prince Nawaf said, according to the newspaper Al-Riyadh.
“It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic Charter,” Wilcke said.
Human Rights Watch urged the IOC to put Saudi discrimination against women in sport on the agenda of its next executive board meeting in Quebec on May 23.
“The time is running out for hope that dialogue with Saudi authorities will lead to a change in discriminatory policies,” Wilcke said.
“As far as the International Olympic Committee is concerned, it’s the National Olympic Committees that send the athletes,” an IOC spokeswoman said in an interview. The “primary objective,” of an NOC is to put a delegation together and send them to the Games, she added.
Discussions between the Lausanne, Switzerland IOC and the Saudi Olympic authority about whether the kingdom will send women to the Olympics for the first time “are still going on,” the spokeswoman said. “It is not a no.”
The London Olympics start July 27.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the only nations not to send women athletes to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Qatar and Brunei are both expected to send female athletes this time round.
Earlier this month, the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics said they were “confident” Saudi Arabia will send female athletes following a “constructive meeting” with representatives from the Gulf kingdom.
In a statement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee had submitted to them a list of potential female competitors.
The IOC confirmed that it had held talks with the Saudis in Lausanne last week in which both female participation and the conservative kingdom’s “culture and traditions” were discussed.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch in February published a report criticising the systematic exclusion of women from sporting activities in Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, which is bidding for the right to host the 2020 Olympics, has already announced its firm intention to send female competitors to London.