Editor’s note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD candidate at
Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the
establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts
of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She
recently published an article in
the International Sports Law Journal that discusses to what extent the
revised bidding and hosting regulations by FIFA, the IOC and UEFA strengthen
access to remedy for mega-sporting events-related human rights violations.
The 21st FIFA World Cup is currently
underway. Billions of people around the world follow the matches with much enthusiasm
and support. For the time being, it almost seems forgotten that in the final
weeks leading up to the events, critical reports on human rights issues related to the event piled up. This
blog explains why addressing these issues has to start well in advance of the
first ball being kicked and cannot end when the final match has been played.
The Warm-up: Preparing for the Game
Even though the recently published update by FIFA’s Human Rights Advisory Board compliments
FIFA on its increased efforts for tackling human rights issues related to this
year’s World Cup, it is no secret that thousands of workers were exposed to
severe human rights violations while working on World Cup construction sites in
rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) extensively reported on the structural exploitation that workers were
facing, including unsafe working conditions leading to numerous injuries and
the death of 17 workers, forced illegal work due to lack of employment
contracts, and cases of non-payment or serious delays in payment of wages. Those workers
that dared to file a complaint were threatened with retaliation and
non-payment of wages. Furthermore,
journalists and human rights advocates that tried to report on these cases have
been intimidated, denied entry into the country, or even arrested while carrying out their investigations.
Blaming the occurrence of these
human rights violations on Russia being this year’s World Cup’s host would
ignore the fact that these violations are recurring in the context of
mega-sporting events (MSEs) like the Summer or Winter Olympic Games or the
World Cup. To a certain extent, these events heighten pre-existing human rights
risk in the host country and thereby increase the likelihood for violations to
occur. Thus, numerous stories of exploitation of migrant workers have
been documented in relation to the construction works for the 2022 World Cup in
Qatar. Furthermore, worker’s rights are not the only rights that are at risk
during the delivery of MSEs. Other common types of human rights abuses
associated with hosting MSEs are cases of forced displacement, infringements of
participatory rights, and infringements of freedom of expression and the right
Shortly before and during these events, reports on incidents of excessive use of force by local police and private
security forces, as well as arbitrary arrest and criminalization of homeless
people and street children are also commonplace.
The First Half: Establishing Responsibility
The key challenge in addressing these cases is to
identify the actor and actions responsible for these harmful outcomes. However,
MSEs like the FIFA World Cup are jointly organized and staged by a mix of
public, private, national, and international actors. International sports
bodies, like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee (IOC), set the terms
and conditions under which these events can be hosted. Host countries agree to
these conditions by submitting government guarantees and declarations and by adopting
special event-related legislation.
Furthermore, local and regional authorities issue permits and give orders to
enable and facilitate event-related operations. The local organizing committees
are responsible for living up to the conditions set by the sports bodies and for
hiring the necessary contractors. These range from local to international
firms, from city planners and logistic experts, to food suppliers and
construction firms. Further companies that
profit from the MSE-business are international broadcasting firms and
recruitment agencies. The financing of these events is secured through national
and international corporate sponsors, such as McDonald’s and Budweiser for this year’s
FIFA World Cup.
The intuitive thing to do from a
human rights perspective would be to call upon the responsibility of Russia as
the host country to address these abuses, since states are not only responsible for respecting, protecting and
fulfilling human rights but also for preventing third parties from abusing
human rights on their territory. However, this would ignore the real issue at stake: the fact that MSE-related
human rights abuses are the result of complex collaboration between multiple
actors involved in delivering these events. In the case of exploitation of
workers on World Cup construction sites in Russia, construction companies contribute
by imposing abusive employment conditions; recruitment agencies by recruiting
the workers under false promises; the state by failing to protect the workers
and potentially even facilitating certain practices through its event-related
policies; FIFA by requiring a certain number and standard of stadiums for the
event; and finally also the sponsors by providing the necessary finances.
This rather simplified identification of the various contributing
actors only presents a broad indication of how they contribute to these
violations and share responsibility. The problem is that the entanglement
of actors and their operations creates
highly complex governance structures. In order to identify those actors responsible
for the violations, victims first have to untangle these structures and retrace
the chain of decisions taken, permits issued, orders given, and actions taken.
Even if that succeeds, the key challenges are to identify which of the
contributing acts would give rise to legal responsibility and to establish
responsibility for those actors that have no direct obligations under
international human rights law.
The Second Half: Establishing Accountability
entanglement of actors and their contributions does not only impede the
identification of the responsible actors but also the identification of
adequate accountability mechanisms. The business and human rights field knows a
broad spectrum of mechanisms ranging from judicial to non-judicial, and from
state-based to operational level mechanisms. Up to this point, the few attempts to hold certain actors accountable for
MSE-related human rights violations either have been unsuccessful or only
addressed a fraction of the actors or types of violations involved. For
example, FIFA’s responsibility for World Cup-related human rights abuses has
been the subject of a court case in Switzerland and two specific instances dealt with by the Swiss National Contact
Point (NCP). The court in Zürich dismissed the case with unusual speed on
mainly practical grounds (a more detailed discussion of the judgement can be
found here). The mediation procedure at the Swiss NCP
led to the creation of a
monitoring system for decent work and safety in the workplace for migrant
construction workers in Qatar, but
their living standards and the abuses of recruitment agencies were not
What these attempts highlight is
that the main shortcomings of available mechanisms amount to a lack of access
to these mechanisms for affected groups and individuals and a lack of human
rights receptivity of existing mechanisms. In light of these shortcomings, new
mechanisms are currently being developed and existing mechanisms are being
tested in the MSE and human rights context. Just in time for the start of the
World Cup, FIFA launched its new complaint mechanism for human rights
defenders, which provides
human rights defenders and media representatives with an avenue for
complaints for situations “in which they consider that their rights have been
unduly restricted when conducting work in relation to FIFA’s activities”. Via an online platform, human rights defenders,
journalists and other media representatives can submit a complaint and FIFA
commits to ensure that it will apply an “appropriate follow-up processes” to it. FIFA itself is supposed
to assess these complaints and seek cooperation with third parties that are
involved in the matter and relevant institutions that can support the
With regard to testing existing mechanisms, the possibilities for using
arbitration as means to address MSE-related human rights issues opened up with
the revised bidding and hosting regulations of FIFA and the IOC. Both entail provisions for human rights protection
and arbitration clauses, referring to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, for
challenging the performance of the host-city or -country under any of the
The Overtime: The Winner Takes its Share
One way of interpreting these recent efforts of
international sports bodies to increase awareness and respect for human rights
protection in connection with their events is to argue that they are increasingly
becoming aware of their share of responsibility and accountability. Indeed, the
increased awareness of adverse human rights impacts of MSEs triggered a number
of initiatives that aim at raising human rights standards in the MSE business. In
2016, the MSE
platform for human rights has been created, which is a
multi-stakeholder coalition consisting of international and
intergovernmental organisations, governments, sports governing bodies,
athletes, unions, sponsors, broadcasters, and civil society groups, who are
committed to take joint action to protect human rights throughout the MSE
lifecycle. Recently, this multi-stakeholder initiative created the Centre for
Sport and Human Rights, which is an independent center that connects stakeholders
and affected groups to share knowledge, build capacity, and strengthen
accountability for adverse human rights impacts of sports more generally.
Concrete event-related examples of initiatives exist as well. In the
run-up to this year’s World Cup, FIFA,
Russian authorities and representatives of trade unions took a joint effort to
set up a monitoring program for labour conditions on World Cup construction sites.
Similar processes led to the establishment of a worker
welfare monitoring system for workers on World Cup construction sites in
Nevertheless, significant challenges
remain in relation to concrete cases of MSE-related human rights abuses and it
is important that these efforts do not fade after the final match has been
played. MSE-related human rights violations do not automatically stop when the
event is over. In some cases, for instance cases of forced evictions,
violations continue as long as victims have not been compensated adequately. These challenges do not make it a hopeless endeavour,
but they highlight that more work and change is needed before responsibility
for MSE-related human rights violations can be established. Especially,
most of the developments and efforts of sports governing bodies are rather recent and only apply to events that will take
place in the future. Hence, it remains to be seen whether the revised bidding
regulations can ensure that future World Cups will have a more positive human
rights legacy and eventually avoid adverse human rights impacts altogether.
 Business & Human Rights Resource
Centre, ‘Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup’
14 February 2018.
 ibid 27.
 Megan Corrarino, ‘“Law Exclusion
Zones”: Mega-Events as Sites of Procedural and Substantive Human Rights
Violations’ (2014) 17 Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal 180.
 Lucy Amis and John Morrison,
‘Mega-Sporting Events and Human Rights—A Time for More Teamwork?’ (2017) 2
Business and Human Rights Journal 135, 137.
For a more elaborate overview of actors, see Amis and Morrison (n 5) at 136.
 Fédération Internationale de Football
Association, ‘2018 FIFA World Cup RussiaTM - FIFA Partners’ (FIFA.com, 2017)
15 February 2018.
 FNV, Bangladeshi Free Trade
Union Congress, BWI & Nadim Shariful Alam v FIFA Handelsgericht Kanton Zürich (3 January 2017).
 Specific Instance regarding the Fédération Internationale de Football
Association (FIFA) submitted by the Building and Wood Workers’ International
(BWI) - Final Statement Swiss
National Contact Point (2 May 2017).
 FIFA, ‘FIFA Statement on Human Rights
Defenders and Media Representatives’ (2018) 4, para 14
accessed 12 June 2018.
 ibid 5, para 15.