The role of human rights in mega events: From supply chain to sponsors

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The role of human rights in mega events

Mega events present an opportunity to celebrate ideas, cultures and showcase human potential. Since the first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896, the FIFA Football World Cup in Uruguay in 1930 and the World Fair (Expo) in Brussels, Belgium, in 1935, we have seen how mega events promote the economy, create jobs, foster collaboration and partnerships and revitalise urban infrastructure. But due to the scale and complexity of supply chains, the need for large-scale construction and the reliance of migrant workers, mega events have to manage numerous challenges related to human rights.

What is a mega event?

A mega event is defined by five characteristics:

  • The number of visitors it receives (the minimum is 1m)
  • It is broadcasted worldwide
  • The cost of building infrastructure and of organising the event itself (from USD 1bn for the Pan American Games 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico, to USD 55bn for the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China)
  • Its legacy, the long-lasting transformative impact that the event has on the host city or country)
  • It is a onetime event

The most widely known mega events are the Olympic Games and the football World Cup. However, mega events also include the Asian Games, the Rugby World Cup, Expos, political summits, conventions and festivals.

Mega events and human rights: the connection

Bridging social, national, economic and gender divides, mega events are an opportunity to unite, reflect on and showcase national achievements – whether in terms of the economy, trade and commerce, or sports. All organisations participating in mega events, including those in the world of sport, are responsible for respecting human rights.

Mega events have the potential to have a positive impact on host countries and local businesses, their workers and society at large. Yet it has been long documented how, during mega events, human rights abuses tend to increase. These range from the eviction of communities to make room for event venues to the exploitation of migrant workers in the construction of stadiums.

However, human rights risks are not only linked to host cities and construction companies: businesses and mega event sponsors are equally subjected to human rights scrutiny. During mega events, companies need to source goods and raw materials in greater volumes and with a tighter deadline. And, if these goods and raw materials are supplied by countries with weak or non-existent labour laws, human rights risks will most likely be present. For example, international media company Thomson Reuters and telecommunications multinational Vodafone decided to limit their sponsorship of the 2013 Bahrain F1 Grand Prix due to international concerns over Bahrain’s human rights record.

Led by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), the Mega-Sporting Event Platform for Human Rights (MSE Platform), was launched in June 2018. The MSE supports collective action through its advisory council, which includes an alliance of intergovernmental organisations, governments, sports bodies, athletes, hosts, sponsors, broadcasters, civil society representatives, trade unions, employer’ associations, and national human rights institutions. Through this collective action, the MSE undertakes research and develops tools, engaging with stakeholders to share knowledge, assess progress and identify challenges. As part of its research, the MSE identifies the key stakeholders and potential human rights impact within a mega event’s lifecycle:

Human rights


The role of the UN Guiding Principles at mega events

As human rights risks – whether for an individual, business or nation – become a higher priority in the international agenda, the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) can play a vital role to prevent, mitigate and remediate human rights abuses across the lifecycle of the mega event.

The UNGPs reaffirm a state’s duty to protect against human rights abuses and provide guidance for businesses on how to respect and reduce the risk of causing or contributing to human rights abuses throughout their business activities and their supply chain. Because they apply to governments and government-run bodies, public-private partnerships and companies, the principles are invaluable to events. In practice, the UNGPs mean that the hosting government must ensure that human rights are protected within any aspect of a mega event, from the planning and design phase to its legacy. Equally, companies must make a public commitment to respect human rights, put in place human rights due diligence and ensure that remediation mechanisms are available and accessible. The UNGPs are not only relevant to companies that have a contractual agreement with the mega event or local organisers, but also apply to their supply chains and to companies involved in the servicing or staffing of hotels, sponsorship, media and any other commercial partnerships.

Due diligence and its impact on human rights

It may not be possible to eradicate human rights risks completely but enacting the correct processes and procedures from the outset can help organisations and those within their supply chains mitigate the risk of a potential infringement of human rights. Human rights due diligence is an essential tool that event organisers and businesses within their supply chain can use to identify and remediate human rights risks.

The MSE Platform provides a framework for conducting human rights due diligence across the eight phases of a mega event:

Human rights
Human rights


An opportunity to promote best practices

Managing the human rights impact of mega events on people, host cities and other stakeholders can seem a daunting challenge, but through collective action there are many opportunities to promote best practices and set new standards for human rights as recent mega events have shown:

  • Awareness-raising on human trafficking took place at the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006.
  • Strict codes of conduct for suppliers producing official merchandise were introduced at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in Canada in 2010.
  • New standards for health and safety during construction were set during the London Olympics in the UK in 2012, where only ethical agencies were used for recruitment.

Delivering a mega event requires good planning, vision and commitment. Host cities need to identify what human rights challenges they are likely to face and how these can be prevented; organising committees must integrate human rights commitments into the bidding process; and sponsors, businesses and suppliers need to integrate human rights due diligence practices into their activities and their supply chains that will ensure that their business activities will never directly or indirectly undermine human rights.

A mega event can have a trickle-down effect to the businesses and organisations in its supply chain by setting new parameters for human rights and expectations for how impacts are managed in the future. This is perhaps the ultimate legacy a mega event can leave on the lives and communities of those it touches.


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