UN Special Rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki has become embroiled in a row on social media after defending her decision to back the IOC plan to let athletes from Russia and Belarus at Paris 2024 ©United Nations

The UN Special Rapporteur Alexandra Xanthaki has been accused of "whataboutism" after claiming that athletes from Russia and Belarus should not be banned from competing at next year's Olympic Games in Paris because the United States were allowed to take part at Athens 2004.

Xanthaki, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, was one of two United Nations experts who last week commended the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for considering allowing individual athletes from Russia and Belarus to take part in international events under a neutral banner so they could take part in qualifying competitions for Paris 2024.

"We urge the IOC to adopt a decision in that direction, and to go further, ensuring the non-discrimination of any athlete on the basis of their nationality," Xanthaki and Ashwini K.P., Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, said in a statement.

Xanthaki, a Greek who is Professor of Laws at Brunel University in London, has defended her support of the IOC following criticism on social media.

"Soooooo, the US waged an illegal war in 2003," she wrote on Twitter.

"I don’t remember people trying to ban Michael Phelps from swimming."

That was a reference to the fact that the US took part in the 2004 Olympics in her home country, despite having led a coalition involving the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland to invade Iraq the previous year.

According to US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, the coalition aimed "to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people", even though a UN inspection team had declared it had found absolutely no evidence of the existence of WMDs just before the start of the invasion.

Phelps made his Olympic debut as a 19-year-old at Athens 2004, winning seven medals, including five gold.

They were the first Olympic honours of a start-studded career which saw him retire after Rio 2016 with a total of 28 medals, a record 23 of them gold. 

Michael Phelps won five Olympic gold medals at Athens 2004, a year after the United States had led a coalition that invaded Iraq ©Getty Images
Michael Phelps won five Olympic gold medals at Athens 2004, a year after the United States had led a coalition that invaded Iraq ©Getty Images

Several critics responded to Xanthaki’s post by claiming she was guilty of "whataboutism", a tactic in which a critical question or argument is not answered or discussed, but retorted with a counter-question or counter-accusation.

The term is believed to have originated in the UK and Ireland in the 1970s, but, according to experts, was refined by propagandists in Soviet Union during the Cold War when any criticism of the Moscow on topics such as Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship was met with a "What about..."

"With this comment you officially tipped over in to using actual Russian propaganda talking points," wrote one responder to Xanthaki on Twitter.


Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the "Special Procedures" of the Human Rights Council. 

Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. 

The experts are volunteers and are supposed to be independent from any Government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity.

The row came as the Ukrainian Government stepped up its own propaganda campaign to try to ensure that Russian and Belarussian athletes are not allowed to compete in Paris 2024.

This included the Ukrainian Defence Ministry posting a Tweet that read, "Are you still waiting for the Russian national team at the Olympics in Paris?" above a graphic video that starts with Russian athlete Leonid Yekimov competing in a pistol shooting competition.

The video then cuts to graphic images of Ukrainians laying dead in the streets, some with their hands tied behind their backs, before the screen goes black and then the message "THE WHITE FLAG OF RUSSIA BELONGS ON THE BATTLEFIELD, NOT AT THE OLYMPICS" scrolls across the background, followed by "#boycottrussiansport" flashes up.

The video has so far been viewed 2.5 million times.

The 35-year-old Yekimov is a three-time European shooting champion and represented Russia at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.  

In 2019, Yekimov, a member of the Russian army, won a gold medal at the 7th Military World Games in Wuhan.

There is no suggestion that he was involved in the death of any of the Ukrainians featured in the video.