Human Rights and International Sporting Events

“If we were to hold a minute of silence for every estimated death of a migrant worker due to the constructions of the Qatar World Cup,” Hans-Christian Gabelson, the head of Norway’s trade unions, recently said, “the first 44 minutes of the matches would be played in silence.” 

The tremendous human cost of the construction of infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a country with a notoriously poor record on labor rights, has reignited an international debate about whether or not international sporting organizations ought to take human rights records into account when selecting host countries. Gabelson’s sobering quote reflects the position of many major international human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, which argue that FIFA’s choice of Qatar as a host in 2022 was irresponsible. Yet Qatar also responded to the international attention by announcing a series of major labor reforms –– although, according to Amnesty International, workers are still “vulnerable to serious abuses” like forced labor. Do these reforms indicate that hosting international sporting events in countries with poor rights records is beneficial to human rights? An analysis of a similar situation –– the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia –– proves that this spotlight can have adverse effects. 

In June 2013, Russia passed a law that criminalized promoting “the attractiveness of nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors. The new law, widely considered to be anti-gay, generated an exceptional amount of blowback from the international community: Protesters gathered outside of Russian embassies from New York to Berlin. The new law was covered at length by news sources around the world, with the UK’s Channel 4 even releasing an entire documentary about it.  

At the root of this relentless coverage was the 2014 Winter Olympics, set to take place in Sochi the following year. The Olympics and other international sporting events often result in heightened scrutiny over the host country’s human rights records. Coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was accompanied by in-depth reporting on urban inequality in Brazil, while the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar has, as discussed previously, ignited global controversy surrounding the state of labor rights in the country. But while these large sporting events present transnational human rights advocacy networks with an opportunity to draw media attention to human rights abuses, this renewed attention does not often succeed in bringing about domestic policy reform. In fact, as in the case of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the negative consequences of an international sporting event in a country with a particularly egregious human rights record can largely outweigh the positives. 

Despite the international protests against Russia’s anti-gay laws, and the fact that the new law was a violation of the Olympic Charter, the spotlight of the Sochi Olympics did not bring about any change. The “gay propoganda” law that became the focus of so much attention in the lead-up to the Olympic Games is still in place, even though a European court ruled in 2017 that the policy was illegal under international law due to its discriminatory nature and the limits it places on freedom of expression. The attention from the international community has done nothing to stop Russia’s crackdown on LGBTQ+ activism from increasing in the years after the Olympics: Russian-born LGBTQ+ activist Pavel Stotsko, who was forced to seek asylum in the Netherlands after marrying his husband in Denmark, told Reuters last year that “before the ‘gay propaganda’ law it was stressful––you had to hide your sexual orientation to avoid harrassment…but at least we all had hopes that Russian society was moving in the right direction. [That] has evaporated.” 

While the controversies and activism surrounding the Sochi Olympic Games did not mobilize the domestic policy changes in Russia that activists intended to effectuate, they did, ultimately, have an effect on the behavior of the Russian government. Namely, they encouraged the Russian government to crack down even further on pro-LGBTQ+ civil society activism and institute draconian anti-free speech mechanisms. In the lead-up to Sochi, Human Rights Watch published a report warning that anti-free speech measures against critics of the government and of the Sochi Games was “intensifying.” Jane Buchanan, Europe and Central Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said that “by escalating the campaign to silence Sochi critics, the Russian authorities are showing the lengths they will go to stifle negative information about the games.” 

" The Sochi Olympic Games did provide the international community with the opportunity to  as many said, on human rights abuses in Russia. Ultimately, however, this spotlight did nothing to advance the policy goals it sought to achieve; instead, it prompted backlash against civil society actors. "

Nevertheless, an all-out boycott of the Sochi Games would not have necessarily been more effective. The United States already boycotted one Olympics in Russia – the Moscow Olympics in 1980, after Russia invaded Afghanistan – without any success in effectuating policy change. Rather than coercing Russia into leaving Afghanistan, the US boycott likely encouraged Russia to remain in Afghanistan so to avoid the image of caving to Western demands. Had the United States decided to boycott the Sochi games, it could have set in place similar incentives for Russia to maintain its policies in order to avoid appearing vulnerable to American coercion. 

The Sochi Olympic Games did provide the international community with the opportunity to  as many said, on human rights abuses in Russia. Ultimately, however, this spotlight did nothing to advance the policy goals it sought to achieve; instead, it prompted backlash against civil society actors. 

In response to these problems, the International Olympic Committee instituted a stipulation in its host city contract that requires the host country to follow certain human rights guidelines. Outlining these specific requirements in advance incentivizes potential host countries, who seek the political prestige and potential economic boost that comes from hosting a major international sporting event, to maintain strong human rights records. FIFA also adopted a new human rights policy in 2017 in the wake of reports of the mounting labor abuses committed in Qatar. 

Clearly, these new mechanisms face certain challenges: International sports organizations are not equipped to conduct independent and in-depth human rights investigations into each potential host country, and the new regulations place these organizations in the difficult position of distinguishing which rights abuses are disqualifying and which are not. However, a transnational advocacy network that regularly monitors abuses is already in place. International sports organizations should engage with these actors and seek out their recommendations when evaluating host countries. With clear standards in place in the international sports arena, human rights activism gains a new tool of positive reinforcement. 

Photo: Sochi Protest

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