About Serious Fouls and Fair Play – Human Rights in and through Sports

“red card” by Ian Burt is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The time to leave the implementation of non-discrimination to sovereign states on a global scale seems to be over. Shifts in factual power towards non-state actors call for a more inclusive understanding of engagement in human rights policies. In this article, the international sporting scene serves as an example to illustrate the potential of fair play and danger of serious fouls within such a multi-stakeholder-approach.

The significance of football in the (sporting) world

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, International Federation Football, falsely called “soccer” by some, is the world’s most popular sport. FIFA, football’s global governing body, moves billions of people by its mega sporting events, most renowned among them the FIFA World Cup tournaments, and en passant billions of Dollars in subsidies and sponsoring budgets from its headquarters in Zurich. The organization, set up as an association under Swiss law and comprised of 211 national football federations, has gathered more members than the United Nations (193). Its policies harness a global web of regulations that bind all regional and national member federations, therefore determining every aspect of the game and its administration – from the World Cup finals to your son’s or daughter’s youth team you cheer every Sunday from the sidelines.

However, FIFA does not confine itself to merely organizational aspects of “o jogo bonito” (Portuguese for “the beautiful game”, coined by Pelé, legendary former footballer, now ambassador against racism). Since 1960, when FIFA took a firm stand against the Apartheid régime in South Africa and installed non-discrimination as a principle of the organization, a number of campaigns have been launched to promote equality in sports, most notably UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign.  In April 2016, FIFA went a step further and adopted new statutes as a reaction to serious fouls in the form of multiple corruption scandals within the organization and public criticism of the Federation’s practices in World Cup host countries that contain a holistic commitment to existing human rights standards and their promotion: Fair play, FIFA! But as John Ruggie, Special Representative for Business and Human rights, has pointed out in his report “For the Game. For the World.”, the implementation of this emerging commitment will need further efforts from all FIFA departments. As states are the primary duty bearers under public international law, they are obliged to respect, protect and fulfill human rights guarantees and to be held accountable when they violate their duties. Non-state actors, however, are excluded from the Westphalian system of sovereign states and therefore not directly tangible for the ruleset of international human rights law. The question arises, why human rights policies from an international organisation like FIFA are needed in the first place.

Non-state-interventionism and its implications

When global players like FIFA, equipped with large funds, valuable assets (like broadcasting rights) and consequentially market power, negotiate terms for their operations within a state, they are often successful in persuading authorities to implement policies beneficial for their interests. In Brazil, for example, public subsidies were provided to build new stadiums that were only needed for a few weeks during the World Cup in 2014. Nowadays, these so-called “white elephants” are used as bus depots or makeshift shelters for the homeless. South Africa saw local street vendors banned from World Cup venues that were exclusively accessible for FIFA’s partner corporations.

On the other hand, FIFA’s regulations have proven to be effective in tackling racist behavior on the pitch. Josip Šimunić, Croatian national player, was fined 30.000 CHF and banned for the World Cup in Brazil after displaying the fascist Ustaše salute during a match, while Croatian courts only imposed a fine of about 3000 Euros.

The upcoming World Cup in Russia (2018) is a key indicator of how well FIFA’s non-discrimination system works. The Fare network, an independent NGO, has already monitored qualifiers for the mega sporting event, resulting in multiple national associations being fined for racist or anti-homosexual chants.

In a state like the Russian Federation that deems LGBTQIA-rights-activism “gay propaganda” and has committed multiple fouls regarding its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, independent anti-discrimination monitoring under the umbrella of FIFA could be a way of putting the organization’s market power to good use in creating fair play for all. But just like in the case of states’ human rights compliance, continued efforts from the public and media will be needed to hold FIFA to its word. States however, can see FIFA’s engagement in certain areas as a call to action. But where will they be when FIFA, the (once?) most corrupt entity in professional sports, surpasses them in protecting human rights in football stadiums?

PS: After all, Mr. Šimunić ended up as the assistant coach of the Croatian national team after apologizing for his fascist salute. Foul or fair play?

About the author

Gregor Fischer holds a Master’s degree in law and is currently working as a project assistant at the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy of the University of Graz (UNI-ETC), focusing on human rights, non-discrimination and minority rights. His master thesis, for which he received a “Best of Rewi”-award, deals with the issue of NGOs and human rights in depth (“The Human Rights Responsibilities of International Non-Governmental Organizations on the Example of FIFA”).