After a tumultuous few years of corruption allegations, internal upheaval and human rights abuses linked to its events, FIFA is no stranger to controversy. Its choice of Bahrain, a country where football has been inextricably linked with politics and protest as a location for this week’s meetings of the FIFA Council and Congress, may raise further eyebrows.
In 2011 national footballing stars alleged that they had been tortured after taking part in popular protests alongside tens of thousands of other Bahrainis. More than a hundred athletes from various sports were also suspended for anti-government dissent. Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, the Asian Football Confederation President currently hosting FIFA dignitaries, was at the heart of this storm. According to a state news agency, Al Khalifa chaired a meeting of a committee charged with investigating sportspeople who had “offended the nation and its wise leadership.” He has denied any role in these events but the allegations cast a shadow over his unsuccessful bid to become FIFA President last year.
Six years on, Bahrain is again on the edge of a human rights crisis. But FIFA delegates are fairly unlikely to be disturbed. If any Bahrainis tried to hold a peaceful protest, they could find themselves arrested or violently dispersed by security forces – a blanket ban on protest in the capital has been in place since 2013. If Bahrainis tweeted at FIFA to raise grievances, they could find themselves behind bars, like human rights defender Nabeel Rajab, imprisoned since 2016 because of his tweets and newspaper articles criticising the authorities’ abysmal human rights record. The government sees criticism, or even the prospect of it, as something to be feared. Only yesterday, a foreign journalist and a Human Rights Watch staffer were barred from entering the country to attend the FIFA gathering.
Somewhat ironically, in this grim context, human rights yesterday featured heavily on the agenda for discussion inside the conference hall. The FIFA Council deferred a decision on the longstanding contentious issue of the six Israeli clubs that play inside illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, much to the frustration of human rights campaigners who had hoped the FIFA Congress – the organization’s highest body – would take decisive action this week.
FIFA’s skirting of an important human rights issue, driven by apparent desire to avoid political confrontation, appears symptomatic. For years, under Sepp Blatter’s presidency, the organization pushed back against the suggestion that it had any real responsibility for the rights of people affected by its events – workers building stadiums and infrastructure, protesters outside the grounds and people living in areas cleared to make way for new projects. As the organization’s then Secretary General put it in 2014, “FIFA is not a United Nations. FIFA is about sport…”
More recently, there have been some reasons to hope that change could be possible. Last year the organization commissioned renowned human rights expert John Ruggie to write a public report reviewing its approach, and subsequently announced that it would uphold “respect for human rights … as part of all its activities” and “use its influence to address … human rights risks as determinedly as it does to pursue its commercial interests.” This is a dramatic commitment for an organization known for its commercial zeal.
This week’s gathering was expected to see discussion of a new human rights policy which should articulate in some detail what FIFA is promising to change about its approach. But the question is, after the stamp of approval is given to a new policy document, whether FIFA is really prepared to deliver on its stated commitment to human rights.
Standing up for human rights means more than nice words or agreeing policies. It means using political capital and putting real pressure on governments to stop human rights abuses that are connected to its operations but outside FIFA’s direct control. It means – for example – confronting the Government of Qatar over the country’s repressive sponsorship law that drives the forced labour of migrant workers building stadiums and infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
Last month, the independent auditor for the Qatar 2022 organizers published evidence of workers on World Cup projects being forced to pay illegal recruitment fees, going months without days off and being too intimidated by their bosses to raise complaints. Recent claims of government reforms relating to migrant workers have rung hollow.
Yet FIFA has so far been incredibly reluctant to challenge Qatar on these issues. The announcement this week that the state-owned Qatar Airways is FIFA’s new official partner until 2022 raises huge questions about the prospects of this changing in the coming five years.
Will FIFA risk its commercial relationship in order to speak out for migrant workers and call for genuine reform while it still has the chance to make a real difference?
FIFA has changed its public position on human rights. Now it’s time to see whether the leaders of world football will back this new stance up with real and effective action. FIFA elevated football in Qatar to the biggest stage in 2010 when it awarded them the World Cup. It must now take responsibility for addressing the human rights abuses that have followed.
This article was first run on Euronews