FIFA’s Human Rights Litmus Test: Will It Clean House? – Analysis


Ridden by the worst corruption scandal in its history, world soccer body FIFA is breaking new ground by seeking to put United Nations guidelines for human rights at the centre of its activities.

If fully implemented, the move would not only set a precedent for other international sports associations but could also have far-reaching consequences for FIFA’s future selection of World Cup hosts, current tournament hosts Russia and Qatar, and the eligibility of various members of the executive boards of the group and its regional soccer federations.

The move would also put centre stage the relationship between politics and sports in general and soccer in particular. With human rights inextricably linked to politics, the initiative makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for FIFA to maintain its position that sports and politics are separate.

Denial of the incestuous relationship between the two has allowed FIFA and other international sports associations to enable autocracies and violators of human rights to use the World Cup and other tournaments to launder their reputations, distract attention from alleged abuse and suppression of human rights and basic freedoms, and project themselves favourably on the international stage.

The proof of FIFA’s sincerity in becoming the first international sports federation to make human rights an integral part of its processes, procedures and decisions will lie in how it applies the principles.

FIFA’s decision to seek external help in adopting human rights principles as part of its DNA is remarkable given the group’s past support for autocracies and flouting of moral and ethical standards. FIFA moreover has an abysmal track record in following external advice it commissioned on how best to reform the deeply troubled organization.

FIFA’s sincerity is likely to be put to the test from the day the UN principles are formally adopted with the hosts of both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Russia and Qatar, accused of systematic violations of human rights, and some members of the executive committees of the group as well as of regional soccer confederations facing unanswered questions about their own human rights record or that of the organizations they represent.

Much will depend on a report FIFA commissioned by Harvard international affairs and human rights professor John Ruggie, a former UN Secretary-General special representative for business and human rights. Mr. Ruggie is scheduled to deliver his report in March on how FIFA can best embed the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in everything it does.

Mr. Ruggie’s report is due just after FIFA’s extraordinary congress in February that is set to elect a new president to succeed Sepp Blatter, who after 40 years with the group, 17 of which he served at the helm, has been suspended on suspicion of corruption.

Scores of FIFA and other soccer executives have been indicted on corruption charges in the United States while Switzerland is looking into the integrity of the awarding of the Russia and Qatar World Cups. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said earlier this month that she hoped that Qatar would cooperate with her department’s ongoing investigation that has so far focussed on wrongdoing in the Americas.

The investigations focus on financial transgressions rather than political corruption, which is harder to tackle in legal terms without a structure that governs the relationship between politics and sports.

Under the guidelines that would change with FIFA having to take a far more forceful stand on issues like labour rights in Qatar and gay rights in Russia as well as having to take a more detailed look at human rights allegations against Bahraini FIFA executive committee member and Asian Football Confederation chief Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a frontrunner in the world body’s presidential election – all issues that are political in nature and tied to the politics of the various countries.

FIFA has so far been wishy washy in its criticism of Qatar’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. Significantly improved labour standards adopted by several Qatari institutions, including the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, have yet to be enshrined in national legislation and stop short of giving migrant workers, who constitute the majority of the Qatari population, full basic rights.

FIFA for example failed to follow the advice of Theo Zwanziger, a former German soccer executive, who was responsible for monitoring Qatari progress on labour reform before surrendering his FIFA executive committee seat in May, that Qatar be held to deadlines.

Mr. Zwanziger had called for sanctioning of Qatar if it failed to establish by May an independent commission that would oversee labour reform. A report commissioned by Qatar by British-based law firm DLA Piper had proposed the oversight mechanism. Qatar has yet to act on the advice.

“Unfortunately, almost nothing has happened until today. I strongly doubt the will to change something of the Qataris,” Mr. Zwanziger said at the time. Qatar has sued Mr. Zwanziger for libel for saying that the Gulf state was a “cancer on world football.”

FIFA has shied away from passing judgement on Mr. Salman, who has denied allegations based on extensive reporting by the state-owned Bahrain News Agency (BNA) that serves exclusively as a channel for official government pronouncements that he was involved in the identification of some 200 athletes and sports executives who were penalized for their alleged participation in a popular uprising in 2011.

Some of the athletes, including two national soccer team players, were tortured at the time. Mr. Salman, who was the then head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA), has never denied the abuse nor condemned it.

In his most explicit statement to date, Mr. Salman recently denied any involvement, saying that the committee to identify the athletes and executives he was said by BNA to have headed had never been established. Similarly, the players who spoke about their abuse four years ago and have since remained silent recently denied their earlier statements in interviews organized by Mr. Salman’s presidential campaign.

FIFA has opened the door to making history with its commissioning of Mr. Ruggie and expected adoption of the UN guidelines. It will be up to the group to set the example by not only applying the principles to future decisions and initiatives but also by applying them to major current issues.

The guidelines, according to Mr. Ruggie, would oblige FIFA to “apply maximum leverage” to address existing human rights issues and “to withdraw from contracts” if its efforts fail. With a deficit of $100 million as a result of the corruption scandal, “FIFA is killing the golden goose. They are realizing that,” Mr. Ruggie said in an expression of hope that FIFA would act on his advice on how to apply the UN human rights principles.

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

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