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NEW YORK (May 26, 2021) — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice (Lantos Foundation) today launched the “Empty Box” Campaign, calling on the International...

NEW YORK (May 26, 2021) — The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice (Lantos Foundation) today launched the “Empty Box” Campaign, calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to deny heads of state from authoritarian regimes the opportunity to participate in the Opening Ceremonies of the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.


As part of the campaign, HRF and the Lantos Foundation have written directly to Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, to request that the organization take a principled stand against authoritarianism and not invite 15 of the world’s most brutal dictators to the Games’ Opening Ceremonies, at which they are traditionally provided a place of honor in box seats. Instead, the letter urges the IOC to leave their designated seating box or virtual room empty — a signal to the world that dictators do not belong at the Opening Ceremonies of the world’s premier sporting event. These authoritarian rulers do not embody the spirit of the Olympic Charter, which includes promoting “the preservation of human dignity.” The letter also notes that, throughout Olympic history, authoritarian rulers have frequently used the Olympic stage, and the fame and skill of their athletes, to legitimize and promote their regimes. By disinviting these dictators from the Opening Ceremonies on July 23, 2021, the IOC would deny them the spotlight and the ability to grandstand before a global audience.


To support this effort, HRF and the Lantos Foundation have created a new website and online petition to encourage people to join the campaign.


“The ‘Empty Box’ Campaign aims to punish dictators who take advantage of their athletes at the Olympics to whitewash the abuses of their regimes internationally,” said HRF chairman Garry Kasparov. “Dictators and despots who disregard democratic norms and human rights do not deserve an equal platform with democratically-elected leaders at the Olympic Games. With the ‘Genocide Games’ approaching next year in Beijing, the IOC must do more to protect the values it espouses publicly and prove that it stands by them.


Based on a combination of HRF’s political regime classifications, a determination of countries with the highest number of Olympic athletes, and other troubling indicators, including lack of political rights and press freedoms, HRF and the Lantos Foundation identified the following 15 countries that should be left with an “Empty Box” during the Opening Ceremonies of the 2020 Tokyo Games: Azerbaijan, Burma, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iran, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam.


“There is a long tradition of dictators using the Olympics to gloss over their abuses, but the time has come to end that shameful tradition,” said president of the Lantos Foundation, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett. “By leaving an ‘empty box’ for the world’s notorious dictators, the IOC has an opportunity to show real moral courage — a quality in which it has too often been lacking. An ‘empty box’ harms only the dictators and their tender egos; it does not negatively impact the athletes, coaches, and global spectators who look to the Olympic Games as a celebration of the power of sport to bring the world together.”


The Olympic Games are among the most influential athletic events in the world, and the IOC has articulated a deep commitment to fairness, equality, and social responsibility. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be the first truly international event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and must reflect the values that the Olympics want to carry forward during these Games.


Read the letter here.

Sign the petition here.

Join the campaign and learn more here.



The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies. For interview requests of further comment, please e-mail [email protected].

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights & Justice was established to carry forward the legacy of Congressman Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to the U.S. Congress and a leading human rights champion. The Foundation works with a range of partners on issues that span the globe, with a focus on rule of law and religious freedom. For media requests, please contact Chelsea Hedquist at [email protected]