Millions of eyes are now on Russia, which is in the midst of a human rights crisis, as the FIFA World Cup moves into the semi-finals. FIFA has implemented new policies to promote these rights in host countries like Russia, but the continuation of violent, oppressive practices signals fatal gaps in the program’s efficacy.
FIFA’s new rights-based initiatives include a Human Rights Advisory Board and a series of documents that outline the organization’s standards for ethical behaviour. It also created a reporting mechanism for rights violations related to its activities. Despite these efforts, however, the 2018 World Cup has been linked to a significant number of human rights abuses. Employees at stadium construction sites are often unpaid and work in dangerous conditions. The Building and Wood Workers’ International, a global trade union, has reported 21 laborer deaths. The Kremlin has also restricted demonstrations at World Cup sites and refused visas for foreign journalists who are critical of the government. These infringements on civil liberties build off of Russia’s robust censorship laws. Moreover, Russia continues to criminalize LGBT advocacy, despite FIFA’s non-discrimination policy. The FARE (Football Against Racism in Europe) network, a group that combats discrimination in soccer, has warned attendees in same-sex relationships not to hold hands in public due to frequent attacks on LGBT people.
FIFA’s Human Rights Policy promises that the organization will “go beyond its responsibility to respect human rights” through proactive measures that will protect them. Although the reporting mechanism, announced just two weeks before the tournament, does indicate positive momentum, FIFA must do more to hold host states accountable. This includes putting pressure on partner countries to halt egregious practices, especially those related to the sport’s operation. It must also follow through with existing policy, such as its promise to intervene on behalf of human rights defenders and punish countries guilty of discrimination. New policies and proclamations will do little without meaningful enforcement.
FIFA has previously drawn criticism for its human rights policy following the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. In addition to labor abuses, the Guardian reports that over 19 000 families were displaced during construction of tournament sites. The Brazilian government was also criticized for allocating billions to construction instead of public services. When over a million Brazilians took to the streets to protest, police responded using violence and excessive force. Rather than prosperity, the World Cup sank much further into poverty while FIFA remained silent.
Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, is already drawing controversy over its labor practices. Human Rights Watch reports that unsafe conditions are causing hundreds of worker deaths per year, including on construction sites for the World Cup. As the next tournament draws closer, it is likely that labor abuses will worsen. Although it may be too late to improve its human rights record in Russia, FIFA still has time to revise its policies and prevent complicity in the future.
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