FIFA and the IOC Must Not Be Complicit in Human Rights Violations


No red cards for Qatar.

Despite gruesome reports of labor violations and mistreatment of migrant workers, Qatar will face no threat to its right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. According to an investigation by the Guardian last month, Qatar's preparation for the games are plagued with severe human rights and labor violations. In response, the 2022 committee said:

"Like everyone viewing the video and images, and reading the accompanying texts, we are appalled by the findings presented in the Guardian's report. There is no excuse for any worker in Qatar, or anywhere else, to be treated in this manner. The health, safety, well-being and dignity of every worker that contributes to staging the 2022 FIFA World Cup is of the utmost importance to our committee and we are committed to ensuring that the event serves as a catalyst toward creating sustainable improvements to the lives of all workers in Qatar."

But is it enough?

Part of the purpose of the World Cup and the Olympics is pitting countries against each other in intense but friendly competition to celebrate the games. These organizations, however, also have a responsibility to take action against human rights violations rather than assure us with soaring rhetoric and empty promises.

The debate over whether international sporting organizations should take action against human rights violations has certainly been rekindled in the media lately. The passage of a harsh anti-gay law in Russia this summer drew international criticism against the Kremlin, including calls to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics. In July, the International Olympic Committee announced that it "has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia" that the recently-passed anti-gay legislation "would not affect those attending or taking part on the Games." The statement read more like a cop-out than a firm stance to uphold and protect, in the IOC's own words, sporting events that are "free of discrimination."

The abuses in Qatar amount to modern-day slavery, with almost one Nepalese immigrant dying each day during the past summer constructing the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. Expected to work long hours in the sun without water, workers also had their salaries withheld in an attempt to prevent them from leaving. In response, the Qatari labor minister Saleh al-Khulaifi announced plans to "recruit more inspectors to mount raids and checks on companies to ensure they comply with labour laws and hire more interpreters to speed up the treatment of complaints from foreign workers." FIFA is "taking the matter seriously" but has yet to reveal its own plans to monitor the issue. So far it seems its biggest concern has been the logistical nightmare of shifting to a winter schedule to avoid Qatar's searing summer temperatures, a trivial matter in comparison to the human lives exploited in the preparation for the event. 

As the organizations behind two major sporting events in the world, the IOC and FIFA do have the power to influence and set standards for the protection of human rights. And they have done it in the past. The IOC took a brave position and stood its ground against apartheid in South Africa and banned the country from the Olympics in 1964 while FIFA has backed a major crackdown on racism and discrimination to protect and uphold the beautiful game that is soccer. Both organizations have been stained with controversy in the past and of late. Standing up and taking a tougher stance against human rights violations in a real, non-superficial way will give these organizations a chance to start the process of reversing their tarnished images. The IOC and FIFA both have claimed to be agents for change, but they need to live up to their rhetoric and show more of the political courage they have shown in the past to uphold those commitments.