(ATR) As FIFA President Gianni Infantino proclaims the Russia World Cup one of the best ever, human rights advocates say the global football body fell short.
Minky Worden, Director Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, told Around the Ringsthere is a trend of authoritarian leaders worldwide using sport mega-events to "launder their reputation" and Russia’s hosting of the World Cup was no different.
The final of the 2018 World Cup Final saw a pitch invasion protest by Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot. Shortly after being apprehended the group released a statement calling for the release of all political prisoners in Russia, the allowance for "political competition," and an end to the fabrication of "criminal accusations" against political opponents.
The protest, done in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other VIPs, was significant given the lack of vocal opposition during the World Cup, or visible incidents to disrupt the tournament. The foreign press described the tournament as smoothly run and reported the Russian people as openly hospitable despite warnings of human rights abuses in the country.
"The trend that should most concern FIFA is that these dictators are increasingly seeking the tournaments and repress their own people and use the tournaments to launder their reputation," Worden said to ATR. "That is a system that really needs to be disrupted, it's not sustainable because it undercuts the image and value of sports and celebrating human achievement."
Worden said that FIFA had taken strides to address a lack of human rights protections in its bylaws ahead of Russia 2018. However, if the tournament was the global football body’s first opportunity to show the new language’s effect it was largely ineffective.
The first clause of FIFA’s newly adopted Human Rights Policysays the body will respect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Worden said the guidelines have four major principles, due diligence of human rights conditions in the country, monitoring of human rights practices, remediation, and transparency.
"I think one of the biggest challenges, to be fair, FIFA was playing catch up, it put its monitoring system after some of the worst abuses had taken place," Worden said. "And the monitor system has serious flaws as it was using a government affiliate monitor to announce inspections."
In addition, Worden said that HRW monitored Russia’s adoption and implementation of anti-LGBT ordinances from before the Sochi Olympics. This included reports of anti-LGBT purges in the Russian state Chechnya. In the same state Russian authorities jailed activist Oyub Titiev on what the international community described as inflated charges.
FIFA eventually named Grozny, the capital of Chechnya as a potential training site for World Cup teams. Egypt selected the city as its training base and visited with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, amid international criticism, and reported criticism from its own star striker Mo Salah.
Kadyrov was not the only leader known for human rights abuses seen at the tournament. During the World Cup Final Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko, known as the "last dictator in Europe," and the President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir were guests in stadium’s VVIP room.
Worden says that FIFA still has the opportunity to learn from its mistakes in Russia as the last four years of preparations for the Qatar World Cup begin. FIFA should use its clout to press Qatari officials to go further on labor reforms, and ensure that migrant workers rights continue to be enforced once they leave World Cup stadium construction sites.
Qatar has implemented the beginnings of reforms to its controversial Kafala system, which previously put the movement of workers at the discretion of employers. Plus, combating government censorship of LGBT rights should be a cause FIFA takes up, Worden said.
Three years ago FIFA moved the dates of the 2022 World Cup to November and December to avoid risks of playing football during Qatar’s sweltering summer heat. Without assurances migrant workers are taken care of, then FIFA risks showing that a footballer’s health is more important than the workers building the footballing infrastructure.
"Qatar is an example of where FIFA has very serious challenges, and it is part of why FIFA has a human rights policy," Worden said. "Qatar will be a major test of implementing its human rights policy better than it has done in Russia. Lives depends on it."
Written by Aaron Bauer
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