As the whistle blows: lessons learned from the World Cup on human rights 

  • Sport reaches across all sections of society, providing a unique platform to promote and advance human rights.
  • As the start whistle for the FIFA World Cup nears, teams, players and sports organisations are increasingly speaking out on the human rights challenges to impacted workers, communities and athletes surrounding the event, providing clear lessons for businesses involved in future major sports events.
  • The most important of these challenges is communicating a clear commitment to protecting and respecting human rights and conducting risk assessment at the earliest opportunity, before rights-holders are impacted and brand reputations put at risk

The event approaches

Sports and participants represent the best of us. They inspire us to do better and can have real impact as a force for change. There are also real human rights challenges that the sector is starting to take seriously in different ways.

With just days before the starting whistle blows, the FIFA Qatar World Cup 2022 continues to show how much different actors in the field of major sporting events perceive and appreciate their role in respecting and protecting human rights. 

As the event approaches, action by brands and participants to highlight human rights concerns are increasing. Hummel, the manufacturer of the jerseys for the Danish football team, have developed a plain, all-black, third kit for the tournament to memorialise the migrant workers who have died during the 11-year period of construction for the event. European football team captains plan to wear armbands during matches to highlight their concern for LGBTQ rights in the host country. Pressure continues to build from fan groups in Germany, national clubs in Norway and former players across Europe for national teams to boycott the tournament. 

The pressures in a new, post-award world

We expect to see more of these actions over the coming weeks, questions have been asked about the human rights track record of the host city of Doha and the impact of the FIFA World Cup on rightsholders in the country since its award in 2011. The spotlight of international attention is now firmly on Qatar, but pressure has been building on brands and businesses to respect and protect human rights for some time:

  • International regulation and requirements continue to grow. In the same 11-year period, there has been a continued, global shift towards socially responsible business practices and investment approaches by organisations, brands, and investors. This was accelerated by the release of the UN Guiding Principles (“UNGPs”) on Business and Human Rights, also in 2011, which provide guidelines for companies to protect, respect and remedy human rights harms. The UNGPs are particularly important for companies associating themselves with sports events, as they set expectations to use leverage with business partners to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts.
  • International sports bodies have responded by introducing human rights requirements for major sporting events. Major events can create impacts through the displacement of communities to make way for stadiums and infrastructure, as seen during the World Cup in Brazil, or highlight existing challenges such as the labour rights of migrant workers building venues or the marginalisation of vulnerable groups within societies on religious, ethnic or gender grounds, as seen in the 2021 winter Olympics in China. In response, the International Olympic Committee, FIFA and other major sports organising bodies are working to implement a raft of bidding and hosting regulations that require human rights risk mapping and management as a qualification condition.
  • Pressure was put on Qatar and World Cup organisers from day one and this has led to unprecedented change in the Gulf Arab state. Key reforms to the labour law have been made. Qatar has scrapped the ‘kafala’ (sponsorship) system that tied workers to an employer, restricting freedom of movement. It is also the only Gulf state to host a regional office of the International Labour Organization (ILO). But despite these reforms, challenges remain, particularly with the maturity of the base economy to implement the labour law and the limitations of detection and enforcement.
  • The power of sports personalities and their platforms. Some players and sports personalities have shown that they are keen to protect their own personal brand. Ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in December 2021, Lewis Hamilton spoke out on women’s rights, commenting “It’s not my choice to be here, the sport has taken the choice to be here.” With legions of followers on social media channels, sports stars like Hamilton have an immediate and powerful reach to focus attention on human rights issues and this has wrong-footed many teams and sponsors.
  • Consumer attitudes are changing. A YouGov poll surveyed 17,477 people in 15 countries, finding that two-thirds believed that FIFA’s corporate partners and sponsors should publicly call on FIFA to compensate migrant workers who experienced labour rights harms while preparing for the World Cup in Qatar. This reflects a broader trend in society of increasing consumer awareness on the social sustainability of products consumed and the perception of the brands who produce them.

Takeaways for businesses in the mega event orbit

  • Communicate a commitment to respecting human rights and do it loudly. Like all businesses, those who sponsor athletes, sell products or provide services to sports events have a responsibility to respect human rights, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In July 2022, 14 major sponsors of the current World Cup were surveyed by three human rights organisations, found that only four sponsors responded with human rights policies or activities, including remediation, to address the specific risks related to the event.

      Clearly state a commitment to respecting human rights and be transparent on risks identified and how policies are being operationalised to address these.

  • Identify human rights risks early and be thorough. The current spotlight on the World Cup is forcing brands and businesses to react to human rights issues that have existed in the environment for years. You can’t effectively manage what you don’t know. Companies that don’t do this proactively will be forced to react, often on the back foot.

      Do human rights risk mapping prior to an investment decision or activity to reduce the impact to rights-holders.

  • Develop and communicate mitigation strategies. In 2018, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund divested its £66m stake in global security company G4S over an unacceptable risk of the company contributing to systematic human rights violations regarding its workers involved in the security and construction of venues for the World Cup in Qatar. The fund said that although G4S knew about the risks it had not done enough to address them. There often remains a gap in how human rights risks – even mapped and known risks – are prioritised and managed, and the degree to which stakeholders are consulted.

      Develop a risk management plan that is effective at addressing the root causes of the most significant impacts and clearly communicate this to all relevant stakeholders.

  •  Where harm has occurred, have a plan for remedy. Remedy is more than providing financial compensation when harms occur. It can take many forms, such as rehabilitation, assurance of non-repetition, or a simple acknowledge that an impact has occurred. By properly understanding harms, and the needs of the rightsholders that are impacted, an effective remediation plan can be developed. Where such a plan isn’t in place or communicated to stakeholders, additional risks can be created. In May this year, a global coalition of labour unions, fan groups, and human rights organisations called on FIFA and Qatar to establish a programme to remedy identified rights abuses related to the 2022 World Cup. This was focused on providing financial compensation to families impacted by the loss of a family member building the infrastructure to support the event.

      Develop remediation strategies that are appropriate to the harms being addressed by understanding stakeholder’s individual needs.