(CNN) — A leading human rights group has written to Formula 1 CEO Stefano Domenicali expressing deep concern about the role they believe the sport is playing in sportswashing ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
The new season begins in Bahrain on March 5, before which the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) has urged F1 and the FIA, motorsport’s governing body, not to “sportswashing bloodstained images” of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which hosts a race on March 19.
Sportswashing refers to the use by governments of high-profile sporting events to project a favorable image of their country around the world, often to divert attention from alleged wrongdoing.
“Despite their appalling human rights records, both states enjoy generous F1 contracts and exploit F1’s platform to clean up their image on the world stage, while thousands of political prisoners languish behind bars,” Sayed said. Ahmed Alwadaei, BIRD’s director of Advocacy, in a statement commenting on the letter on Monday.
“F1 must launch an independent and impartial investigation to examine the role of its racing in human rights violations, and the FIA must adopt a human rights policy consistent with UN principles.
“Not doing so will allow their sport to continue to be used to repair the reputation of brutal dictators.”
Responding to BIRD, an F1 spokesperson said in a statement to CNN: “For decades, Formula 1 has strived to be a force for good everywhere it competes, including for economic, social and cultural benefits.
“Sports like Formula 1 are in a unique position to cross borders and cultures, and bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of competition and incredible achievements.
“We take our responsibilities very seriously and have made our position on human rights and other issues clear to all our partners and host countries, who commit to respecting human rights in the way their events are organized and delivered.”
The FIA, motorsport’s governing body, told CNN that it “cannot interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.”
“The FIA, as is the case with other international sports federations, cannot interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” an FIA spokesman said in a statement on Monday.
“This independence from the affairs of States, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) underlines, does not mean, however, that we are insensitive to the possible difficulties that the people affected may suffer.
“At the pinnacle of motorsport, F1 events are held across a wide spectrum of countries and cultures around the world,” the FIA statement added.
“We believe that the most fundamental objective of motorsport, and of all sport, is based on the desire to increase our common ground and cultivate the principles of cooperation and commonality between people.
“The FIA will continue to work on projects that bring positive benefits to society in general, always acting within its scope as a regulator of world motorsport,” the federation added.
CNN has contacted Bahrain’s Supreme Youth and Sports Council and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports for comment.
It is not the first time that F1 has been in the spotlight for hosting races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
In 2020, the seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton said that the sport has a “huge problem” with human rights before competing in Bahrain.
But speaking to CNN Sports days after Hamilton’s comments, the former F1 CEO Chase Carey said that the sport has been “very clear about our commitment to human rights” and was “very proud of our association here in Bahrain”.
CNN’s Amanda Davies, Jack Guy and Matias Grez contributed to this article.