Tuesday, 01. February 2022
IOC, FIFA and Human Rights The Fall of Man as a Turning Point?
2022 – a sports year that begins with Winter Games in Beijing and ends with a World Cup in Qatar. It will be a year when the focus is not just on sports – as the hosts and organizers face fierce criticism, with human rights in mind. What are FIFA and the IOC doing?
By Matthias Friebe and Marina Schweizer | 31.01.2022
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Cheers erupt on this 24. August 2008. Jacques Rogge, then president of the International Olympic Committee, concludes what he sees as a truly extraordinary Summer Games in Beijing. Behind him are not only the competitions, but also many discussions and criticism because of the human rights situation in China. Still, Rogge sees the Games as groundbreaking:
"The thing that is most important in the end is that the world took a good look at China during the Games, and China opened up to the world. The world got to know China and China got to know the world. I think it will have a positive impact in the long run."
Diplomatic boycott by some countries
From the beginning, human rights organizations have been critical of the award decision. A sports organization that claims to have special values cannot give games to a country where human rights abuses are commonplace, says Zumretay Arkin. She is a member of the World Uyghur Congress:
"I think the IOC made a big mistake when it awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games. Because as we saw, after the 2008 Olympics, the oppression of minorities, especially the Uighur population, increased dramatically. Genocide is being committed against the Uyghurs".
Even before the Summer Games, Uighur groups had accused the Chinese government of radical intervention in the Xinjiang region. A large number of Western democracies [*] now officially speak of "genocide". Human rights organizations have been reporting growing problems in China for decades: for example, severely restricted freedom of speech – as well as repression in Hong Kong and Tibet. From the perspective of U.S. Minky Worden, who has worked on sports for years at Human Rights Watch, the upcoming Games are a new low:
"These Winter Games showcase ruler Xi Jinping’s bid to burnish China’s image on the world stage and deflect attention away from attacks by China’s government – on civilians, journalists, right-to-health activists or peaceful critics. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, the Winter Games are a geopolitical event for China, designed to hide and sign off on the government’s repressive laws. These are political games."
The IOC and human rights
Long before the first Games in Beijing, for example, her organization had been lobbying the IOC to embrace human rights and make them a requirement of the award process. In this context, the IOC repeatedly refers to its political neutrality. President Thomas Bach repeatedly emphasizes:
"Our responsibility is not and cannot be to solve the political problems of this world"
Awarding the Olympic Games does not mean the IOC takes a position on the political system, social conditions or human rights standards in a country, the IOC wrote in response to a query.
"The IOC honors and upholds human rights at all times, as enshrined in the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter and the Code of Ethics. We are responsible for ensuring that the Olympic Charter is respected in relation to the Olympic Games and we take this responsibility very seriously". All interested parties must assure that the principles of the Olympic Charter are respected in the context of the Games."
The IOC writes that it has also received this commitment from the organizers in China. It said it was in communication with all the organizing committees on various issues related to the organization of the Games. Such as working conditions, contracting, demonstrations and data protection. Quote:
"From everything we see from "Beijing 2022" as far as these obligations are concerned, we have no doubts about their fulfillment at this time."
Here, too, the close reference to the event itself is striking. The former chairwoman of the Bundestag sports committee, Dagmar Freitag, sees the Olympic umbrella organization as having much more of an obligation:
"No one expects sport to solve political problems in a country. No one expects that. Indeed, sports cannot do that. But sports are in control of where they send their athletes."
The IOC must be able to impose sanctions
Athlete and human rights organizations have been calling for years for a comprehensive strategy for the IOC to address and mitigate violations.
The Australian Rachel Davis has long been concerned with the responsibility of sport for human rights. In 2018 – three years after the Games were awarded to Beijing – it is commissioned by the IOC, together with former UN High Commissioner Zeid al Hussein, as an independent consultant to make recommendations: for a strategy in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. So what is the IOC’s obligation??
"They are expected to address the risks associated with their event. That means they should go into it with their eyes open, understanding the foreseeable risks, and what can reasonably be done about them. And they should exert their influence early and continuously when it comes to addressing these risks."
Accordingly, cannot the greatest leverage of such a sports federation be played out before an award is made: If an interested host country does not meet certain standards, it is not up for election?
"Setting the right terms in a contract is the basis for managing human rights risks and using leverage. But it’s also about everything that comes after the contract. So it’s about the kind of relationship you build and how clear you make expectations from the outset."
Since delivering her report in 2019, Rachel Davis, who works for the international organization Shift, has been advising the IOC on how to implement it. Some of Davis’ and al-Hussein’s recommendations have been incorporated into the Olympic host contracts from 2024 onwards. In the future, host cities must also commit themselves more strongly than before to respecting human rights. Even with applicants you want to look more closely. But many organizations are moving too slowly. How to review and address this even after the award is still a sticking point. Rachel Davis points to what has already been accomplished:
"What has definitely happened in the meantime is that the IOC has done one of the most important things: Hired someone who has responsibility for setting up an internal structure, a department, that deals with human rights, and who starts to develop a strategy. So we see the first steps. But of course everyone who works on human rights issues wants things to happen faster – we are always impatient and want better results."
FIFA is also gradually integrating human rights legislation
Even before the IOC, FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, had already begun to integrate human rights regulations in a similar consultative process – especially with regard to the awarding of major tournaments. Regardless of this, the Club World Cup, which will begin shortly, was nevertheless awarded first to China and now to the United Arab Emirates because of the Corona situation. But for the two upcoming World Cups for women in 2023 and men in 2026, FIFA stresses, the new rules have been applied. A lesson from the fall from grace with Qatar? The U.S. judiciary is making serious allegations against some of the officials involved in the 2. December 2010 for the tournament in the Gulf.
"The winner is Qatar"
It’s all about bought votes and corruption. Underdog Qatar wins then over fellow contenders Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. And already at this time the criticism of the tournament is immense.
The heat, which after long debates finally resulted in a transfer to the winter, the lack of soccer culture at the host, but above all the situation of human rights. Franz Beckenbauer is also present at the 2010 vote. His assessment of the World Cup host is exemplary for many
"Well, I haven’t seen a single slave in Qatar yet". They’re all on the loose."
Round 15.000 migrant workers dead since World Cup
But the descriptions from the accommodations in which hundreds of thousands of guest workers live in inhumane conditions are also depressing. The rhetoric of world soccer’s governing body and its president is reminiscent of that of the IOC.
"We must also acknowledge that without the spotlight of the World Cup, many improvements would not have come."
Gianni Infantino, who has been repeatedly accused of being too close to the host country Qatar and those in charge of the World Cup there, moved his center of life a few weeks ago – at least partially – to Doha, the capital of the World Cup host country.
Meanwhile, world soccer’s governing body confidently goes one step further. A FIFA spokeswoman, when asked by Deutschlandfunk, says the World Cup has already "left a lasting legacy in terms of labor rights and serves as a catalyst for broader positive social change in the host country and throughout the region."
The federation points to international organizations to confirm progress. For example, the ILO, a United Nations agency for labor rights. Houtan Homayounpour heads the ILO office in Doha [**] and says 2020:
"The situation is certainly not perfect, but one should also recognize achievements. The Qataris are surprised at the force of the criticism, because they actually think they are making progress."
"Kafala" – the controversial guarantee system
The emirate is particularly criticized for the so-called Kafala system, a kind of guarantee system. Human rights activists criticize the system for being inhumane, as it turns guest workers into serfs of their employers. Reforms are underway, the full-bodied initial announcements that the system has been abolished now sound more defensive, even at FIFA. The emirate is on its way, she writes, in terms of raising the minimum wage and giving workers greater freedom to choose their jobs.
"Even though I might not just be earning a fan club with this: unlike in Beijing, I think I’ve seen some movement in Qatar," says sports politician Dagmar Freitag. She points out, however, that the much-cited spotlight also has a dark side.
"You now have to look at what will actually remain from the small steps after the World Cup. So what’s in store come January 2023? Is there again everything with the old?"
FIFA, when asked about this, cites a UN report from 2019. There are reports of "impressive changes" and "comprehensive reforms". However, if you read this report by Zambian professor Tendayi Achiume more closely, it says:
"Despite the comprehensive reforms, the need to monitor compliance remains."
It goes on to say that the impressive changes in the 30.000 workers of the Supreme Committee are also responsible for the construction sector with about 800.000 workers urgently needed. So the road is still long. Since the World Cup was awarded to Qatar, a number of changes have also been made to FIFA’s statute, and a codified human rights program was adopted in 2017. For this, FIFA praises itself highly, as it so often does.
"These requirements are widely regarded as the most sophisticated system of its kind."
The Australian Rachel Davis also played a leading role in advising on the report. So is FIFA really serious?
"We all want to see more than words on paper. I think we have seen that FIFA has started to make a difference on the ground."
In short: Awareness is created. FIFA’s independent advisory body, chaired by Davis, also speaks of it. Almost all of the panel’s recommendations have been implemented or are on their way to being implemented, she says. Yet she also says:
"Of course, there are also areas where it still has a lot of work to do. And this is what we highlighted in our last report."
Progress in the area of human rights could, the report says, be more of a challenge in the future than a lesser one. The committee cites child protection, equal rights for women and combating structural racism as its main tasks.
Demand for clear verifiable guidelines
The comprehensive strategy on all these and many more human rights issues is still missing in 2022, both at FIFA and the IOC. Athletes and human rights organizations insist on clear guidelines that are verifiable and involve all stakeholders in their creation. "Athletes Germany," for example, is calling for athletes to have more of a say, right from the start:
"They cannot exert any influence on the award decision and also have no rights of participation or co-determination in the further process," says Maximilian Klein of the athletes’ association.
"And yet, years later, they are supposed to pay for the mistakes of the federations and bear responsibility for them. And then one can speak of instrumentalization, yes, but at least of a pretextual excuse, when the federations and organizers then come around the corner years later and never tire of emphasizing that it is primarily about the athletes and their sport."
Concern over manipulation of Corona tests in Beijing
Too much trust has been lost to sports federations in recent decades – in part because of their steady commercialization. This is why many observers are skeptical before the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing when the IOC merely invokes quiet diplomacy in the case of tennis player Peng Shuai. Or when veteran IOC members like Canada’s Richard Pound question what happened in the Xinjiang region:
"I do not know. You can berate me for my ignorance all you want. But I don’t know," Pound told Deutschlandfunk radio in December.
And then there are the thousands of athletes and their support staff who are now traveling to China in the midst of the omicron craze. They are worried about manipulation in the coronatests. Many are scared: the host’s tough approach had already been evident at test competitions – some criticized the opaque measures, the overly harsh approach of the authorities. Despite all the IOC’s assurances. Many worry about their freedom of expression at these games, similar to 2008. As recently as mid-January, a representative of the Beijing organizing committee threatened athletes with punishment if they spoke out against Chinese rules and laws. When asked about this, the IOC simply refers to its rules. Just before the Games, two-time U.S. Olympian in cross-country skiing, Noah Hoffmann, advises: athletes better not speak their minds until they get home.
"From my point of view, athletes need to take care of themselves – that’s their only responsibility. You can get in touch when they’re back. But they don’t have the responsibility to deal with problems the IOC has caused them. That would endanger their own safety. And that would not be a reasonable request to athletes."
Even though initial steps have been formally taken in some areas, the fall from grace of Beijing and Qatar 2022 will draw a lot of international criticism.
"I hope the human rights violations make 2022 a turning point," says Australian ex-footballer Craig Foster, who is also involved with Human Rights Watch.
"A watershed moment where there is a reckoning with global sport, especially the IOC and of course FIFA."