Why Hamilton has taken action on human rights

Lewis Hamilton's recent emergence as the conscience of Formula 1 has put a spotlight on his views on many issues. But why has the seven-time world champion taken up the mantra of human rights?

Why Hamilton has taken action on human rights

As a globally known personality, the world champion's words carry weight, and he's been granted the opportunity to use his fame for good. To his credit he has consistently done exactly that – and this week in Bahrain his focus has turned to human rights.

The sport travels to several countries where the subject is an issue for campaigners. It's inevitable that as a major international event a Grand Prix attracts attention, and generates accusations of "sportswashing."

The Bahrain GP has been the subject of that attention for many years, even before the protests in the country that led to the cancellation of the 2011 race.

Back then Hamilton drove for McLaren – a team part-owned by Bahraini interests – and while he has always been honest, inevitably he was wary about expressing strong personal views on potentially contentious subjects.

Since then, he's got older and matured as a human being. He's grown into the role of spirited campaigner on many important subjects.

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Last year, he pushed hard in many areas, leading the pre-race anti-racism knee gesture among the drivers, expressing his support for the Black Lives Matter campaign, and helping to persuade his Mercedes team to focus more intently on diversity issues.

Lewis Hamilton, Breonna Taylor t-shirt Tuscan GP 2020

Lewis Hamilton, Breonna Taylor t-shirt Tuscan GP 2020

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Before last November's Bahrain GP Hamilton was lobbied by human rights groups, and he wasn't afraid to express his support in a thoughtful and conciliatory manner.

"When I arrived here around midday, I received some letters, but I've not had a lot of time to digest them," he said at the time. "So that's something I definitely need to do over the coming days.

"I spent time speaking to legal human rights experts, spent time speaking to human rights organisations like Amnesty. I have seen the UK ambassador here in Bahrain, and I've spoken to Bahrain officials also" Lewis Hamilton

"Naturally, the human rights issue in some of the places we go to is a consistent and a massive problem. I think it showed this year how important it is for not only us as a sport, but all the sports around the world, to use the platforms they have to push for change.

"Naturally we are probably one of the only ones that goes to so many different countries. I do think as a sport we need to do more. I think we've taken a step in that direction, but we can always do more.

"I think they've put some steps in place for the places we are going to, but it's important to make sure they are implemented in the right way, and it's not just us saying we're going to do something and we actually see some action taken.

"That's going to take some work from all of us in the background."

Hamilton's comments were well received by campaigners, notably the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy [BIRD]. However he was then hit by COVID before the Sakhir GP, and thus didn't have the opportunity to pursue the subject while still in the country.

Lewis Hamilton, 2020 Bahrain GP grid

Lewis Hamilton, 2020 Bahrain GP grid

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

Last week, a group of 61 British MPs wrote to new F1 boss Stefano Domenicali about human rights issues in Bahrain, citing notable individual cases – some directly connected to protests about the sport visiting the country. Significantly, the letter also referenced Hamilton's earlier comments, reflecting his influence.

It concluded: "We urge you to publicly acknowledge the legitimate human rights concerns voiced by your champion Sir Lewis Hamilton; establish an independent inquiry into abuses specifically linked to the race; and meet virtually, in private, with stakeholders including rights groups and victims, before the race in Bahrain on 28 March 2021, with a view to securing their compensation."

On his arrival at the Sakhir circuit on Thursday, Hamilton was again asked about human rights. He said that since November he has taken steps to find out more about the subject, indicating that he is indeed serious about making a difference.

"I received those letters last year, which weighed quite heavily on me." he said. "It's the first time I've received letters like that along my travels.

"For the last few months I've taken time to try and educate myself – because coming here all these years I wasn't aware of all of the details of the human rights issues.

"I spent time speaking to legal human rights experts, spent time speaking to human rights organisations like Amnesty. I have seen the UK ambassador here in Bahrain, and I've spoken to Bahrain officials also.

"At the moment, I think the steps that I've taken really have been in private, and I think that's the right way to go about it. So I don't really want to say too much that may jeopardise any progress. That's the position I'm in now. But I'm definitely committed to helping in any way I can."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Asked if F1 should take greater responsibility for the venues it visits, Hamilton admitted that it was difficult for him to comment.

"That is a really good question, and it's not my power to choose where we go and race," he said. "But just reflecting again back on the powerful position that we are in in terms of the responsibility, human rights I don't think should be a political issue."

On Friday, BIRD revealed that Domenicali had responded to the letter from the British MPs. While acknowledging that human rights issues are important for the F1 organisation, he insisted that there's a limit to what impact it can have in the countries that it visits.

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"I want to say that F1 takes its responsibilities on these matters extremely seriously," Domenicali wrote.

"I was watching more documentaries, I was reading a huge amount more, trying to educate myself on the things that are happening around the world. And that hasn't stopped" Lewis Hamilton

"But we also believe that sport has always had a unique role in bringing different cultures together and crossing borders, being a force for good.

"We believe that shutting countries off from sport is not the right approach, and engagement is far better than isolation.

"Our human rights policy is very clear and states that the F1 companies are committed to respecting internationally recognised human rights in its operations globally and have made our position on human rights clear to all our partners and host countries who commit to respect human rights in the way their events are hosted and delivered.

"We have engaged in detail with BIRD and Parliamentarians in recent years and have raised the matters discussed with the Institute with the relevant authorities in Bahrain and the UK.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

"However, it is important to make clear that F1 is not a cross border investigatory organisation. We are a sports rights holder that has the important job of promoting our sport across the world in line with the policies I have set out above."

Given that F1 and Liberty Media are long-term business partners of the Bahrain government, it's obviously a tricky issue for Domenicali - still new in the job - to tackle. And it won't get any easier as December's inaugural Saudi Arabian GP draws closer.

PLUS: Why criticism of F1’s latest controversial locale misses the point

Hamilton, meanwhile, has shown once more than he's not afraid to speak about difficult subjects like racism and human rights, and do it with considerable class and thought.

"I think as I get older, I'm understanding more," he said on Thursday.

"I think we all like to think went through an educational phase last year, we're all learning more, there was a lot more discussion. I was watching more documentaries, I was reading a huge amount more, trying to educate myself on the things that are happening around the world.

"And that hasn't stopped. So through the winter, also. And it definitely felt empowering to not be silent, like some may want you to be, it definitely felt that on the one side, taking the knee on a personal level, to let the black community know that I that I hear you, I see you and I stand with you.

"That was important for me. And but along the way, there's so many things that we need to address around the world. And naturally, I can't fix everything. But I naturally want to help."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Lewis Hamilton
Teams Mercedes
Author Adam Cooper
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