With the FIFA World Cup 2022 taking place in Qatar, much of the world participated in the football cheer. But perhaps unknown to many, a dark shadow of human rights violations loomed behind this cheer and revelry. The Human Rights Watch has been closely examining the human rights concerns associated with the World Cup in Qatar, and recently published a comprehensive guide about these issues for concerned reporters and journalists. The report spans across the rights of migrant workers, women and the LGBT+ community and raises some disturbing insights.
FIFA’s own website expresses a commitment to human rights and states that it is invested in ‘respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.’ The website asserts FIFA’s strategic program to ensure human rights at all levels of the organizational operations, and the fact that their Human Rights Policy was drafted in agreement with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Yet, sources would suggest that this Human Rights Policy has fallen short in dire ways.
Ever since Qatar was awarded the FIFA tournament in 2010, the country has come under scrutiny for their treatment of migrant workers, among other questionable human rights standards. Amnesty International has pointed out multiple points of human rights violations in Qatar, including abusive censorship of journalists, lack of freedom of association, unfair trials, criminalisation of the LGBT+ community and abuse of laborers. Some of these infringements even extended to players, who were threatened with sanctions if they wore the One Love armbands in solidarity with the queer community.
Worker Rights: Who Builds The Stadiums?
The FIFA World Cup, Qatar reveals an intersection of various types of discrimination and abuse. But perhaps the most egregious of these human rights violations have to do with the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar. When the tournament kicked off in Qatar, it came with massive infrastructural demands, including multiple large stadiums, a new airport, hotels and a more advanced transit system. While the new stadiums look modern from the outside, these infrastructural needs were met by migrant workers with little protection and next to no legal rights. The Guardian reports that there have been more than 6500 migrant worker deaths in Qatar in the ten years since it was awarded the World Cup. This number comes from government sources which do not categorize the site of death; it is likely that the actual death toll is much higher and that a large percentage of these deaths are directly tied to the World Cup.
In response to the death of a worker at a resort used at the tournament, the World Cup chief executive Nasser Al Khater was reported to have said ‘death is a natural part of life.’ Speaking to Reuters, Al Khater went on to dismiss any concerns about labor rights as ‘negativity’ from the part of journalists and even claimed that it was a ‘false narrative.’ This callousness reveals the nonchalance with which many officials approach the lack of labor rights and exploitation in the context of the World Cup.
The migrant population in Qatar, many from India, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Nepal, Egypt and the Philippines, make up almost 95% percent of the labor force in the country. The treatment of migrant workers leading up to the World Cup only reflects the everyday conditions of these laborers in the Middle Eastern country. To begin with, the Kafala system, or a system of sponsorship exists in many Gulf countries, including Qatar. The Kafala system allows sponsorship permits to individuals and companies which they can use to employ laborers. Those with the sponsorship permits can control the housing, travel and even visas and legal status of the laborers. Since the Kafala system falls under the scope of interior ministries instead of labor ministries, the laborers are often stripped of basic rights and are left vulnerable to exploitation and control at the hands of their sponsors.
While Qatar did away many aspects of Kafala law in 2015 and 2017, especially in light of the World Cup, the system has not been totally abolished. Additionally, voices of dissent like labor rights activists continue to be persecuted and detained. This repressive culture around labor as a whole inevitably created an inhumane atmosphere for workers during the World Cup in Qatar.
No Rainbows: Gender & Identity at the Fifa World Cup 2022
Althout Qatar has stated that all are welcome to the World Cup without discrimination, same-sex sexual activities are criminalised in Qatar and can lead to a prison sentence. This has led to LGTBQ football fans worrying about their gender and sexual expression and fearing hostility while attending the tournament.
In the run up to the tournament, players of teams from seven European countries had planned to participate in the OneLove campaign in solidarity with the LGBT+ community. The campaign involved wearing rainbow armbands to express support to the queer community, an act of silent yet visible protest against the repressive Qatari laws. In an unexpected move, players were informed that they would be penalized with yellow cards for wearing the armbands. The announcement was made only hours before the matches started and forced the players to axe the campaign.
This move has been criticized as an act of censorship that does disservice to the LGBT+ community. While FIFA cited improper politicization of football as their rationale, it is difficult to ignore the homophobic undertones of the decision. Earlier in November, the 2022 FIFA Qatar World Cup Ambassador, Khalid Salaman, described queerness as a ‘damage in the mind.’ He went on to assert that being gay is forbidden and unacceptable. This kind of thinking comes in a larger context of social stigma against queerness. Apart from being faced with criminalization, LGBT+ individuals in Qatar also face the risk of state sponsored conversion therapy and arbitrary arrests.
The social biases towards LGBT+ and women in Qatar play out in the World Cup in evident ways. Grant Wahlt, a US based journalist has reported that he was detained in Qatar after wearing a rainbow shirt to the World Cup opener. Examples like these do not happen in a vacuum; instead, they reveal larger social attitudes and exclusionary beliefs that infringe upon basic human rights.
The Dangers of Sportswashing
The term ‘Sportswashing’ refers to organizations or countries using sports to improve their image and repute. When it comes to international relations, sports can be a part of a country’s soft-power. Sporting events like the World Cup can often be leveraged to conceal deeper problems and generate more positive coverage towards a country. Sportswashing can also bring in revenue for countries, with Qatar anticipating an increase in GDP following the World Cup.
Sporting events and human rights have clashed with each other on many occasions. The spectacles of excellence that are demanded by international sporting events are often built upon the backs of suffering and exploitation. The 2016 Rio Olympics was notably linked to widespread human rights abuses, including the rights of children. The Rio Olympics was also accused of ‘hiding’ the poor in anticipation of foreign visitors. The infrastructural developments leading up to the Olympics sought to cover up low-income neighborhoods in the city and even led to the forcible evictions of residents.
While international sporting events are usually associated with glamor, fame, celebrity, and athletic excellence, in many cases this image is held up by exploiting the vulnerable, or trying to erase them entirely. Large sporting events like the World Cup demand rapid development and urban transformations. This kind of development is often upheld as the hallmark of burgeoning modernity and technology. But if you delve a little deeper into these developments, what you would discover are older patterns of inequality and subjugation.
Sports, and particularly global sporting events, are intimately tied up with international relations, politics, labor relations and freedoms; the very stuff that can make or break human rights. Many dislike the ‘muddying’ of sports with politics – consuming sports is meant to be a reprieve from everyday life, not a critical examination of it, they might say. The accusation of bringing ‘politics to the pitch’ comes with connotations of being overly righteous, or even taking the fun out of sports. But the Qatar World Cup reveals that the grand spectacles that come with sports are intrinsically political and fundamentally exploitative. Examining the human rights violations associated with the World Cup is not an act of bringing politics to the pitch – the politics has been there all along. And it’s time we paid attention.
About the Author …..
Anagha Smrithi is a writer and researcher from Bangalore, India. She has an MA in Media & Cultural Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Currently, she works as an Editorial Assistant at the Journal of Creative Communications. She is also a published poet.