During the lead up to the World Cup tournament that ended this past Sunday, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International noted significant human rights abuses on the part of host country Russia.
While the Russian government has long been guilty of promoting discriminatory policies against sexual minorities and stifling free expression, World Cup-specific outrages included Russia’s use of North Korean slave labour to construct the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg.
Human rights abuses didn’t start or end at the stadiums. Russia orchestrated numerous political crackdowns well before visitors began streaming in, arresting researchers, protesters and political opponents. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave notorious Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov a platform in which to engage with players and, according to HRW, “launder his image.”
Kadyrov is notorious for throwing human rights workers in prison, being implicated in the murder of journalists and political opponents, and speaking of parents killing their LGBTQ children so “law enforcement would not have to worry about them.” His purge of homosexual Chechens, which many fear involved mass imprisonment and murder, did not prevent him from jovially enjoying the games and posing with international players like Egypt’s Mohamed Salah.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino found himself personally embroiled in these issues, which exposed Russian abuses but also FIFA’s failed commitment to its own human rights charter during what he himself described as the “best World Cup ever.” The FIFA charter, which was implemented in 2017 after years of scandals, states that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights”.
And yet, as one researcher with Human Rights Watch points out, there is immense worry that the Russian crackdown which began before the start of the 2018 World Cup will now intensify in the absence of international attention.
This is a lesson that FIFA needs to pay close attention to ensure the 2022 games in Doha don’t negatively impact labourers, citizens, journalists, and human rights advocates. Fortunately, there is reason to hope we will see a more humane World Cup during the Qatar 2022 games – and Qatar itself is expected to be an engaged partner in making sure that is the case.
While the start of construction on Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure was mired in controversy surrounding labour rights abuses and poor working conditions, outside criticism from groups like the International Labour Organization (ILO) has moved the government in Doha to listen and make changes in accordance with international standards.
Late last year, for example, the Qataris moved to change their laws to secure the rights of migrant workers, including not only domestic and privately sponsored workers but those currently working to build the football stadiums that will host matches in 2022 as well. These changes include a cap on the maximum hours worked per day, annual leave, healthcare and mandatory rest days.
In the same vein, Qatar has revamped its private business sponsorship system, switching visas over to a government sponsored system. The new model includes several legal safety provisions which have until now often been flouted by private businesses. This change is expected to improve wages, payment schedules and worker safety. It will also disallow the confiscation of migrants’ passports.
It will, of course, take time to see how far these reforms will go and how thoroughly they will be implemented. Already, though, the Qataris have signalled a welcome change by engaging proactively with their Western critics instead of ignoring or castigating them, for example by becoming the first country in the region to establish a partnership on working conditions with the ILO. Many pundits argue that the attention surrounding World Cup preparations in Qatar has done more to promote human rights in the Persian Gulf over the past year than the region’s two major outside partners – Britain and the United States – combined.
Sadly, this is not a high bar. Saudi Arabia, which currently happens to be orchestrating a yearlong blockade of its much smaller neighbour, has received considerable praise from leaders like Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May just for allowing women to drive. Saudi Arabia’s inexplicable decision to arrest the female activists and human rights leaders who fought to lift the driving ban, on the other hand, has been largely met with silence.
Far more damaging is the Saudi-led coalition’s disastrous intervention in Yemen, which the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and which is continuing in part thanks to arms sales from the US, UK and France.
Fortunately, British and European leaders enjoy close ties on leaders on both sides of the Saudi-Qatari border. While the UK has failed to apply pressure on its Saudi allies to protect civilians in Yemen and activists in Riyadh, Theresa May will have the opportunity to discuss and encourage the changes happening in Doha when she meets with Qatar’s emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani in Britain next week. Britain’s Impact is already serving as the External Compliance Monitor for the 2022 World Cup.
As Professor Ara Darzi of Imperial College London points out, Qatar’s response to the Saudi-led embargo (and its engagement with international rights groups) may even provide lessons for May and her government as they prepare for Brexit. By tearing down its barriers to outsiders instead of building them up, Qatar has ensured the current hostility being orchestrated against it by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will not be able to isolate Doha from the global community.
By taking the criticism levelled against its World Cup preparations and changing its own behaviour accordingly, Qatar has also shown that FIFA and its tournament can be a vehicle for positive change – not an accusation the international football federation is used to hearing.