Russia Uses The World Cup To “Sportwash” Their Poor LGBTQ Rights Record

Starting this month, 32 teams from around the globe will come together in Russia to celebrate sport and cross-cultural interactions. Despite this World Cup spirit of comradery and understanding, the host country of Russia continues to systematically suppress LGBTQ visibility and persecute queer people within its borders. Just on the first day of the World Cup tournament, British activist Peter Tatchell was arrested for protesting the treatment of queer people in the country and a French person suffered severe injuries after being attacked for their sexuality.

In June 2013, a few months before the country hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russian government released an “anti-gay propaganda” law. The law criminalizes LGBTQ expression in the defence of protecting children from “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” The law has been used to suppress reporting on discrimination against queer people, as well as to arrest Russians and foreigners demonstrating against the country’s record on LGBTQ rights. This law has not only suppressed LGBTQ visibility but has reportedly led to increased stigma and homophobic violence in Russian society. There have even been many incidents of violent attacks and harassment against queer people caught on camera, including vigilante groups claiming to be fighting pedophilia which lures out, and beat gay men for social media posts.

Beyond the suppression of LGBTQ expression in federal Russian law, the Chechen Republic, a federal subject located in the Caucasus region in southern Russia, has been accused of systematic persecution and harsh abuses of queer people. There are even reports of “gay concentration camps” where queer people are kidnapped, taken to and then berated with verbal abuse and beatings. Maxim Lapunov claims to be a survivor of one of these camps. He says he was pulled into a car one night while walking down the street and thrown into a bloody cell where he was harshly beaten every 15 minutes. He believes he was only released after friends posted missing posters around the capital of Chechnya.

In response to the international reactions to these horrors, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, rejected the reports as fabricated and claims that “We don’t have any gays,” going so far as to say “to purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.” These nonchalant eradicative statements have raised eyebrows of many with LGBTQ rights activists even accusing Chechnya of committing genocide against queer people and reporting the issue to the International Criminal Court. To calm international outrage, President Putin has agreed to send a government human rights investigator to check on what he calls “rumours” in Chechnya, but there have been no actual changes beyond that statement.

Russia has been alleged of using the World Cup notoriety to distract, or “sportswash,” from its human rights record and recent controversial foreign policy actions. Chechen leader Kadyrov has also been accused of using the World Cup to improve his international image, by posing with Egyptian player Mohamed Salah who also plays for Liverpool F.C. in the United Kingdom.

FIFA, the international association that organizes the World Cup, has used its power in the past to change laws to create expedited courts and allow beer sales in stadiums, but it should also use its power for ensuring that the most basic human rights are upheld where its events take place. The eyes of the whole world are currently in Russia, FIFA should not let its event be used to distract from human rights abuses and other issues within the country. Ensuring that every international sports fan, as well as the residents of the nation, can celebrate this global event safely and freely should be an utmost concern for FIFA.

In 2015, FIFA created a policy saying that it requires a minimum human rights standard of host nations, the international sports organization should use this policy for more than just show. They should partner with human rights monitors to ensure that their tournament is being put on as ethically as possible, with respect to worker’s rights, human rights, and protections to not displace the impoverished. But the burden should not just be on sports organizations to ensure that a major country is protecting people within its borders, the international community must put more concrete pressure on President Putin and Head Kadyrov to protect queer people’s human rights and end the persecution.

Eli Craveiro Frankel