Ålands fredsinstitut
The Åland Islands Peace Institute

Hamngatan 4
AX-22100 Mariehamn, Åland, Finland
Tel. +358 18 15570
For more contact information click here.

Peace cups

Support peace work. The cup ''A Piece of Peace'' is sold to the benefit of the ÅIPI.

More information here.

Download our brochure






Publication about
the Åland Example


Read more here.

The Åland Peace Blog

Since the very beginning (in 1992) the Åland Islands Peace Institute has
worked with questions of security, minorities and autonomy. The purpose is
to prevent and manage conflicts, always with a gender awareness. Throughout
the years we have gathered knowledge and strengthened expertise within these
areas, and a new phase was initiated in 2007 with the development of the
Peace Institute's research and investigation capacity. The Peace Institute
arranges seminars, conferences and courses within these areas and regularly
publishes reports and books. We believe that some of the knowledge and
the insights that we acquire should be disseminated to a wider public in a
shorter and quicker form. This is why we are creating the blog. It is
knowledge-oriented and analyzes or comments briefly - but quickly -
news, events and phenomena with the purpose of providing deeper
understanding. The staff and the board of the Peace Institute will
contribute to the blog.

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark
Director of the Peace Institute, Associate Professor in International Law

Mariehamn, 7 May 2014


Susann Simolin is the Information Officer of the Åland Islands Peace Institute and has previously worked as a journalist at the Swedish morning paper Göteborgs-Posten. She has a bachelors degree in journalism and a masters degree in Political science.

”We should not be used as puppets for politicians or activists; sport cannot and should not be a political tool”, this was the head of the International Ice Hockey Federation René Fasel’s response to the pressure to relocate the 2014 world championships in ice hockey from Belarus in May 2012. Political bodies such as the European Parliament and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly have voiced their concern as to Belarus’ suitability  to host the championship in light of the countries’ track record of human rights violations.  There have also been urges from civil society such as the campaign ”Don’t play with the dictator”.

At this point in time, with the ice hockey world championships to start on Friday 9 May, we know for a fact that we are going to play with the dictator. Ice hockey also happens to be the favorite sport of Alexander Lukashenka, president of Belarus and in media often called the last dictator of Europe,

This event provides us once again, and only a few month after the winter Olympics in Sochi, with an opportunity to reflect on the moral dilemma that arise when international sport competitions take place in countries that have a bad record when it comes to grave and repeated human rights violations.

When such events draw closer the question is not so much whether an event should take place in a certain country as planned, we know for sure that the ice hockey world championships 2014 will take place in Belarus. The question at this point is rather how all parties involved, including athletes and spectators, deal with the situation?

The easy way out is to repeat the well-known mantra “politics and sports don’t mix”. But to close ones eyes and pretend to be blind for anything but sports does not reflect reality either. It is beyond any doubt that sports and politics are linked in many ways and on many levels. To quote David Rowe, professor in sociology at  the University of Western Sydney: ”Sport and politics don’t just mix – they’re married with children”. For good and for bad, one could add.

Sports is closely linked to nationalism and to this day contributes to the shaping and reshaping of national identities. Finland is actually a good example of how sports can be used in the process of nation-building. After Finnish independence in 1917 the new nation was in a need for common traditions and values. Lena Kulin discusses how sports was promoted as a part of the official nationalism, regulated and used by the state. Sports journalists actively contributed to the construction of a Finnish identity. For national media sports events presented an opportunity to strengthen the idea of ”us” as opposed to ”them”, the opponents from other cultures and nations, in ways that also at times could be understood as racist, since “the others” were sorted in a hierarchy depending on race and civilization. It is also well known that major sports events have often been used to express political opinions, both on inter- and intra-state levels, not least the Olympics have a long record of being used for propaganda purposes, or for functioning as the stage where current international or national tensions are being demonstrated, for example, the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the subsequent Eastern bloc boycott of the games in Los Angeles 1984, black power salutes at the 1968 Olympic Games and Palestinian terrorists killing 11 Israelis in Munich in 1972. In his speech in May 2012 Fasel brought up instances when sports can be considered to have had a positive politicel impact, Ping-Pong contributing to defrost the relationship between China and the US and rugby helping to reconcile people in South Africa after apartheid.

The creation of ”us” and ”them”, inherent in team sports, whether on a national level or not, does not only contribute to nation-building but also to exclusion. At the same time, sports is often considered to be inclusive, offering possibilities to unite people from different backgrounds, to break-up old, destructive patterns and to function as a platform for furthering democratic values such such as tolerance and diversity. Thus, it seems that sports can be used for different purposes and that it depends on the political environment whether sports is used to promote fair play and intercultural experiences or to manifest the superiority of a nation.

Sports are used as an arena or means to achieve political goals, but there is also a reverse connection. Athletes and federations need political support. National and international federations and their representatives are dependent on having the ear, support and money of local, national or international potentates.

The question ”SHOULD sports and politics mix” seems not to bear immediately satisfying answers, they do mix and it is hard to imagine how they could be untwined. A more relevant question would be HOW can and should sports relate to politics? What responsibilities can be assigned to federations, teams or individual athletes? The former are dependent of the support of politicians, the latter under pressure to perform well. What can we expect from spectators or sponsors, who are those that add all the fuzz and attention to big sports events  

Let us turn again to the situation in Belarus. Visitors often depict Belarus as a clean and well-organized country. Finnish national team player Jere Karalahti, who played for Dynamo Minsk from 2011 to 2013, in an interview for the daily newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet, describes Minsk as a paradise for those that like hockey and depicts his own conditions as a professional hockey player in the country as irreproachable. Yet, it is well known that Belarus has been ruled by ”the last dictator of Europe” for 20 years, Alexander Lukashenka, and that the country has a long track record of political repression and the violation of human and democratic rights. While Belarus has ratified major international human rights instruments and guarantees basic human rights under its constitutional framework, according to Human Rights Watch, the Belarussian regime restricts the implementation of human rights law in practice  and is selective in its cooperation with the UN. Civil society activists and journalists are regularly prevented to speak freely or from publicly promoting human rights and democracy. It is a legal requirement for civil society organizations to be registered, a hazardous, time consuming and expensive procedure. International funding must be authorized by and channeled through the government. According to Human Rights Watch, besides bureaucratic hinders, activists are often detained due to fabricated administrative charges, such as hooliganism, foul language or disorderly conduct. Tax inspections and allegations of tax crimes are also common. Human Rights Watch also reports on threats and warnings and harassment and smear campaigns target human rights promoters.

As mentioned above, political bodies, international organizations and activists have demanded to relocation of the ice hockey world championships, claiming that to hold the competition in Belarus would strengthen and legitimize Lukashenka’s regime and provide a platform for regime propaganda. Those actors have demanded to impose conditions on the Belarusian regime to improve the human rights situation, for example through releasing political prisoners and to abolish the death penalty, before being allowed to host the championships.

Others see opportunities in the event. They hope that it might bring change to a very isolated society, that it brings a boost to the countries’ economy, it might revive discussions on visa regime facilitation between Belarus and the EU or otherwise be a start to improve relations. –The events, not least, puts the international spotlight on Belarus and might spark discussions and long-term involvement concerning human right abuses in the country.

In connection to the Olympics in Beijing 2008, some had high hopes for the improvement of the human rights situation thanks to the spill-over of attention from the games to the general situation in China, but hopes where in vane. 

However, records from HR-activism related to previous sports events held in countries with a bad record in human rights and democracy are not univocal. For example, an analysis made of Norwegian Human Rights organizations and their involvement in the Olympics in Bejing in 2008 shows that according to activists themselves the human rights situation was not improved in China but possibly the attention and ”shaming” of China led to a deterioration of the situation. The human rights organizations engaged in the Olympics gained visibility and legitimacy among the Norwegian population which might have a long-term impact not yet measurable. Ironically, if boycott campaigns would succeed and repressive governments were not allowed to host championships, Human Rights-organizations would lose an important arena for voicing concern and turning attention to human rights abuse in the host countries, which might otherwise help improving the situation in the long run.

It is expected that attention will not be as intense for the Ice Hockey World Championships as in relation to the Olympic games, especially for a championship in a discipline that have recently competed in the Olympics. In addition, attention for the political situation in Belarus in connection to the upcoming event has so far been over-shadowed by events in neighboring Ukraine. It is not the first time that Lukashenka has been lucky in this respect, during the  presidential elections 2001 and 2010, when international attention was brought to how elections were performed and opponents treated, the eyes of the world quickly moved in another direction. In 2001,9/11 turned the attention the US and terrorism, in 2010 the Arab spring pre-occupied public attention. After the elections and the demonstrations following in 2010 the regime imposed even harder restrictions on civil society. This was noticed with concern also by the Åland Islands Peace Institute, that had until then been able to cooperate with Belarussian NGOs on gender equality in partnerships, which were interrupted when restrictions made it increasingly difficult to gain state acceptance for projects or find ways to meet with partners and finance common projects.

It is important to remember that there are many different and sometimes contradictory interests at play in connection to international championships. All actors mentioned above have their own agenda, from players to human rights organizations, to regimes, to ethnic groups, broadcasting companies and other media and added to this should be the interests and agendas of sponsors. Different actors and organizations also have their different roles. It is easy to understand that an international sports federation has many agendas and interests to take into consideration, and none of the agendas can be taken for granted. Fasel is right in his statement that sports cannot and should not be a political TOOL, but evidently, this still does not carry the right to completely ignore that unfair play is going on in host countries, before, during and after major sports events.

Now the games are quickly approaching, they will be held in Belarus – how then to make the best out of it? Can it be a meeting place, an arena for dialogue and can it bring more openness to the Belarussian society?

Many recommend that journalists travelling to Belarus for the games should also take the opportunity to try to get a broader picture of the country, and raise awareness back home. Belarus initially had planned to restrict possibilities for journalists to cover other topics than sports, but abandoned the plan after pressure not least from Finnish media Yle and Helsingin Sanomat. However, journalists might encounter problems when trying to find activists for human rights or democracy to interview, since reportedly activists are now being jailed, supposedly in order to prevent them from meeting with journalists. International visitors that do not speak Belarussian or Russian might also encounter difficulties if they want to mix with Belarussians, since the knowledge of English is very low in Belarus.

The human rights organization Östgruppen in Sweden urges players stay away from side events arranged by the regime and not to speak with Belarussian media since their statements are likely to be used for propaganda.

In conclusion, prospects seem bleak to bring about immediate change in Belarus through the championships, immediate change would not have come about through a boycott or removal of the games either. At best, championships in Belarus might serve as an opportunity to raise awareness and constitute a meeting space for people to gain a better understanding both about “the other” and of their own values, world views and standpoints. While many of us love sports, we should not deny that the human being is a political animal and that our interest may well go beyond the need for entertainment. Why not try to engage and learn more about Belarus at this occasion. Attention can create interest and alliances and civil society is a powerful force that can, also across borders, trigger change.


Accessed online 6.5.2014

Fasel speaks to 2014 issue. Sport cannot and should not be a political tool, 18.05.2012

René Fasel: Sport should not be a political tool, 18 May 2012

European Parliament calls to move the 2014 World Championship from Belarus, 15 Mar 2012

EP passes resolution on Belarus, 30 March 2012

Snart dags för hockey-VM i diktaturens Vitryssland, 11.4.2014

Värnplikt och manlig kroppslighet: Finland 1918-1939, Conference paper 24 March 2009, Anders Ahlbäck

World Ice Hockey Championship In Belarus: Evil Or Opportunity?, 26 September 2012

Hockey Championship In Belarus: Breaking The Ice With The World, 23 April 2014, George Plaschinsky

Karalahti minns öst med glädje. Hufvudstadsbladet 3.5.2014

Många har fängslats på grund av hockey-VM. 5 May 2014

Vi och dom – om idrott, nationalism och koloniala idéer om skillnad i Finland och Sovjetunionen, Lena Kulin, 19 May 2011

Human Rights Watch report: State versus human rights defenders – unfair play

Hockey Championship in Minsk: Human rights watchdogs dissuade countries from sending delegations, 25 April 2014

Resolution would put Belarus in the ‘penalty box’: release of political prisoners would be linked to hosting of hockey world championship, 26 June 2012

Yle nyheter, Många har fängslats på grund av hockey-VM, 5 May 2014

Vitryssland: Självmål av regimen som fängslar aktivister inför hockey-VM, 5 May 2014

Judicial outrage amid hockey championship: neutralization of political undesirables, 6 May 2014

Did Olympics improve human rights in China?, 13 March 2009


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Bloggen skrivs av Fredsinstitutets nuvarande eller tidigare personal, gästforskare och styrelseledamöter eller av inbjudna gästskribenter. Åsikterna är författarens egna.

The blog pieces are written by the peace institute's present or former staff, guest researchers, board members or invited guest writers. The opinions are the author's own.