Major sporting events like the World Cup are bad news for human rights

While the safety of fans, athletes and volunteers came first, the second most popular answer was “human rights, including labor rights, freedom of the press and non-discrimination”.

In seven countries, including Switzerland, where both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are based, human rights were considered the most important consideration in the selection process.

The results of the poll coincide with the expected start of the 2030 FIFA World Cup award process. Amnesty wants to intervene early to remind FIFA of its human rights responsibilities.

Upon publication of the report, Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s Head of Economic and Social Justice, said: “FIFA must strictly apply the highest human rights standards when evaluating all bids to host its flagship tournament, require clear human rights action plans and reject any bid that fails to do so require.” does not credibly demonstrate how serious human rights risks would be prevented, independently monitored and remedied when abuses occurred.”

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This call is the culmination of years of lobbying, advocacy and criticism of FIFA over the decisions it has taken in relation to the World Cup.

Amnesty’s latest intervention builds on more than a decade of discussions and debates in the fields of sport and human rights, which increasingly recognize the inseparable relationship between the two.

A large body of academic and other research shows that the hosting of “mega” sporting events (which include both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games) is harmful to human rights in a number of ways.

Recently, I worked on a comprehensive sporting events and human rights investigation that revealed violations related to labor rights, the rights of the LBGTQI community, restrictions on freedom of expression and association, and violations of housing rights at several recent major sporting events every day in the planning and implementation of these gigantic events.

The increased attention to the importance of human rights in the advertising, planning and execution of sporting events is the result of external pressures that FIFA (and the IOC) have had to respond to.

First, during Sepp Blatter’s tenure as president, FIFA suffered from widespread corruption and crime allegations that eventually led to a US federal investigation that hastened Blatter’s resignation.

One of FIFA’s responses was to bring in an internationally recognized human rights expert to help them develop their own human rights policy.

Since 2017, FIFA has integrated the key principles of this Policy into the bidding process and established an independent FIFA Advisory Board on Human Rights to oversee its human rights commitments.

HeraldScotland: Scotland at their last World Cup in 1998Scotland at their last World Cup in 1998 (image: free)

In 2019, it awarded the rights to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup to United 2026, a joint bid by the United States, Canada and Mexico. This was the first time that applicants had to carry out a human rights risk assessment and submit it with the offer.

The 2026 bid process was undoubtedly influenced by the mistakes made by FIFA in awarding Qatar the 2022 World Cup, where labor violations and legal prosecutions of the LGBTQI community cast a shadow over the event.

FIFA has taken its human rights policies and practices much further and faster than the IOC, although it has not been able to do so without outside pressure. The media, advocacy groups, sports organizations and others have independently and collectively drawn attention to the human rights abuses caused by the FIFA World Cup, compounded by growing commercial coercion.

Organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF have helped develop workable policies and procedures on which FIFA could build, while also holding them publicly accountable for meeting their responsibilities.

Previously, the tactic used by some NGOs and opposition groups was to publicly denounce bad practices or failures by contracting authorities to fulfill their human rights obligations.

In recent years there is evidence that these coalitions are now working more closely with FIFA to inform and influence policy and advise them on how best to fulfill their commitments.

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Naming and shaming is only used today when commitments made in dialogue and discussion are publicly disregarded.

In recent years, the protection and promotion of human rights have been enhanced through the actions of influential international non-governmental and civil society organizations that have monitored, exposed, and intervened to combat human rights abuses around the world.

However, the test for FIFA and other sports awards bodies is how well their rhetorical commitments to respect, protect and promote human rights feed into their decision-making in practice.

All too often in the past, the pursuit of profit has taken precedence over principle, and decisions have been justified as “spreading the financial benefits of the FIFA World Cup to forgotten continents” while the human rights record of the bidders and their rationale conveniently have been disregarded for wanting to use sport to improve their international standing.

In deciding where to host its lucrative tournaments, FIFA has repeatedly undermined its own public commitments to improve human rights. For example, FIFA appears to have ignored its own policy by allowing the Club World Cup to be awarded to China, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Saudi Arabia in recent years without evidence of transparency in decision-making or obvious consultation with civil society.

There is evidence that human rights advocacy has led to changes at awarding bodies such as FIFA in recent years; through naming and shaming, widespread media coverage, and finally through collaboration.

We know from historical examples that the impact on human rights decreases after the event has been awarded. It is therefore imperative that FIFA’s commitment to enshrine human rights in the 2026 World Cup bid process is carried over to the 2030 bid process.

To avoid repeating the mistakes so evident at Qatar 2022, we must integrate respect for human rights principles and practices into the life cycle of major events, from bidding to planning to execution.

Professor David McGillivray, Center for Culture, Sport and Events, University of the West of Scotland

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