Human rights experts debate risks and gains for FIFA, IOC

November 21, 2019 GMT

GENEVA (AP) — The tricky balancing act for sports bodies to push progressive policies while supporting host nations with human rights issues was in the spotlight at the United Nations on Thursday.

FIFA and the International Olympic Committee were both praised and criticized by delegates at an annual Centre for Sports And Human Rights conference.

Soccer’s world body was hailed as a model organization for recently putting a human rights policy into its statutes, including for selecting World Cup hosts.

“It’s a playbook for what a (sports) federation could do,” Human Rights Watch director Minky Worden told the audience during a panel debate stating “all governments commit human rights abuses and all sports bodies are complicit.”


However, critics pointed out that just one month ago, FIFA’s ruling Council picked authoritarian China to host the 2021 Club World Cup with no other candidate offered.

That decision, announced Oct. 24 in Shanghai, was “in direct contravention of FIFA’s statutory obligation to conduct a human rights audit,” said Craig Foster, a former Australia player and rights advocate, at the UN’s European headquarters.

Foster noted the treatment of Muslims in China’s northwest region in comments opening the two-day Sporting Chance Forum. He questioned “whether sport is willing to potentially contribute to (the world’s problems), exacerbate them or endorse them.”

Last month in China, FIFA President Gianni Infantino had defended the hosting award saying: “It is not the mission of FIFA to solve the problems of the world.”

The IOC will also soon to go China, for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, returning 14 years after the city’s Summer Games led to less state reform than many hoped for.

Like FIFA, the IOC’s policy embeds human rights demands into hosting agreements, though it takes effect after Beijing for the 2024 Paris Summer Games.

“People (working) in human rights don’t want to wait,” Mary Harvey, chief executive of the conference organizers and an Olympic gold medalist in soccer, told The Associated Press.

Worden detailed types of human rights risks associated with staging major sports events: Forced evictions without compensation, migrant construction workers dying preventable deaths, activists arrested, internet access shut down.

FIFA has been credited with urging Qatar toward labor reforms that better protect hundreds of thousands of migrant construction workers involved in a massive, decade-long project in searing heat to prepare for the 2022 World Cup.


The Building and Wood Workers’ International labor union eventually reached accords with Qatari authorities but has been rebuffed by organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I have to give credit to FIFA, they did step in,” the BWI’s Jin Sook Lee told the conference. “This is what we would like to see with the IOC.”

The IOC is creating its own strategic policy framework and has enlisted Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Rachel Davis. She chairs the FIFA advisory board and co-founded New York-based non-profit agency Shift.

“That is a significant team,” said Harvey, goalkeeper on the United States team that won the 1991 World Cup.

FIFA, Qatari World Cup organizers and European soccer body UEFA are among sports bodies signed up to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that the IOC will adopt for Paris but not Beijing.

The principles “have given all businesses spectacles to see,” said Andrés Peñate, a vice president of AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer whose brands include World Cup sponsor Budweiser.

Peñate said sponsors “have leverage but often not as much as you think” to influence sports bodies. “You need collective action. You cannot do this on your own.”

Speaking about a 60-kilometers (40-mile) drive from the Olympic home city of Lausanne, Harvey offered her organization’s free services to international sports officials.

“It starts with commitment,” she said, “and it starts with understanding what the (human rights) risks are.”


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