Mega-Sporting Events

Restoring the Beauty of the Game

Commentary, 14 April 2016

By John Morrison, Chief Executive, IHRB

For those who follow the human rights impacts of mega-sporting events it has been a busy couple of weeks. First came Amnesty International’s report on the preparations for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup (“The ugly side of the beautiful game”) and Professor John Ruggie (a Harvard University Professor and author of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) has issued his human rights report on FIFA (“For the Game. For the World.”). Next week the authors of both of the above, and many others, will be in Qatar for the United Nations Asia Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights at which I will moderate two panels on the issue. So, after many years of denial and buck-passing, are we starting to see the beginning of something new, something that might indeed make football, sports, and mega-sporting events beautiful once more?

The epitaph “o jogo bonito” (‘The Beautiful Game”) might not have originated with Pélé but his 1977 autobiography has made the term synonymous with football (soccer). Human rights concerns relating to mega-sporting events date back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany. It is perhaps football that has been at the eye of the storm more than any other. Although corruption and ethics scandals emerge from a broad range of sports, international football is now so large and so impactful that it has attracted the greatest amount of criticism in human rights terms. The run up to Brazil 2014 brought millions onto the streets and concerns relating to Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 will not disappear despite the fact that FIFA has a new President and has adopted new governing rules and its own human rights policy. But it is a start.

John Ruggie’s report has come at just the right time and is most welcome. It should have a profound effect on FIFA but also other major sporting bodies. FIFA has already made some significant statements in relation to human rights. I hope the report encourages them to move further and deeper into action.

The problem at FIFA has been a deep one. Its business model, which has allowed it to grow in influence phenomenally over just a few decades, has also been one in which corruption flourished. Many thoughtful accounts of the situation such as “Planet FIFA” (a documentary for the Franco-German Arte Channel which is well worth a watch) highlight the challenges. So, John Ruggie goes to the heart of the matter when he clearly states in his new report that: “What is required is a cultural shift that must affect everything FIFA does and how it does it. The result must be ‘good governance,’ not merely ‘good-looking governance.’” (p.36).

As Ruggie's report makes clear, without such a cultural change all new human rights commitments will be at best constrained, and at worst frustrated. Major sport has enjoyed a special status in international governance terms for many years. There are legitimate reasons for this – sport should not be overtly political – but as with other parallel issues of ‘global public goods’ such as internet governance, sport cannot be a law-free zone. All forms of accountability – in particular human rights accountability – must be brought back into focus, even if innovative approaches are required.

John Ruggie makes many specific points that FIFA should now act on. For example: “FIFA does not yet have adequate systems in place enabling it to know and show that it respects human rights in practice” (p.19). On the scope of FIFA’s responsibilities, Ruggie comments that identifying human rights risks “does not mean that the primary responsibility for them all sits with FIFA”, and “in many instances it may lie with another party”. The report makes clear however that “it is necessary for FIFA to know where risks exist and to play its part in addressing them” (p.27).

Amnesty International’s report on Qatar is focused squarely on the situation of migrant construction workers, and to that John Ruggie clearly states that FIFA and Local Organizing Committees (LOCs) are linked to abuses of construction workers “through their networks of contracts and subcontracts for the delivery of projects” (p.22). Ruggie reflects that while “FIFA already exerts significant leverage on host states” (p.18) it should be building and using its “its leverage to seek to reduce the risk that human rights abuses will occur” (p.21) “as determinedly as it does to pursue its commercial interests” (p.4). This means FIFA should work with LOCs “to engage their host governments throughout the tournament cycle in efforts to reduce human rights risks associated with tournaments” (p.33). In cases where FIFA is unable to "reduce severe human rights impacts by using its leverage, it should consider suspending or terminating the relationship" and when this is not possible, it should at a minimum "explain its efforts to mitigate the impacts as transparently as possible” (p.33). These are recommendations relevant not just to the 2026 bidding round, but also existing hosts: Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). Indeed, it is likely to be the report’s recommendation that FIFA consider terminating relationships where it cannot reduce human rights abuses that gains most attention.

John Ruggie is also clear that FIFA must not just engage in human rights risk mitigation but also the provision of remedies when abuses do occur. As the report puts it, “In the event that FIFA causes or contributes to negative human rights impacts, it should take an active role in providing remedy, by itself or in cooperation with others. Where it is linked to human rights impacts through its business relationships, it still has a role to play in supporting and incentivizing access to remedy.” Ruggie goes on to recommend that FIFA should require LOCs “to establish [an] effective grievance mechanism for human rights-related complaints, with appropriate threshold for complaints to escalated to FIFA itself” (p.35). The report also makes clear that FIFA’s own remedies should not undermine or block access to other remedies, whether these be state-based judicial mechanisms or a possibly expanded role for the Court of Arbitration in Sport.

Next week in Qatar will be a valuable opportunity to explore some of the recommendations of the Amnesty and Ruggie reports. Beyond this, all stakeholders must continue to work together to ensure that respect for human rights in mega-sporting events becomes a reality. A growing number of organizations believe there is now a case for a new an independent centre to assist in increasing learning, capacity and accountability for what will surely take a generation to fully achieve. But the work must start now and strong and clear commitments from FIFA and other sports bodies are an important start. It will be workers, communities, players and sports fans (those whose human rights need to be protected and respected) who should decide when we have adequately restored the beauty of the game.

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