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Human Rights, Migration, and Soccer: The Role of FIFA

This is a guest post by Elizabeth Boomer, an international law consultant in the Global Legal Research Directorate. Elizabeth has previously written for In Custodia Legis on numerous topics, including Technology & the Law of Corporate Responsibility – The Impact of Blockchain30th Anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the ChildUnited Nations Day – A Time to Reflect on the Potential Role of the International Court of JusticeFacebook’s New “Supreme Court” – The Oversight Board and International Human Rights Law, and Reflecting on 10 Years of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Following the alleged serious human rights abuses related to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the reported controversies surrounding the treatment of migrant construction workers in preparation for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, what will happen when the World Cup comes to North America?

In 2018, the United States Soccer Federation, the Canadian Soccer Association, and the Mexican Football Association won their bid to host the 2026 World Cup, through the “United 2026” bid. New to the bidding process to host the World Cup, the finalist American, Canadian, and Mexican United 2026 cities had to submit human rights plans to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), in accordance with its 2017 Human Rights Policy. However, some organizations are now questioning FIFA’s commitment to prioritize human and workers’ rights, as the organization has reportedly blocked the public release of the cities’ human rights plans.

Andre Cypriano, Bola de açúcar, 2011, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppbd.01103, used under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND license.

FIFA’s Human Rights Policy

FIFA is a non-profit organization based in Zurich, Switzerland. The association revised its statute in April 2016 to include the statement that “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.” Following this move, FIFA established an independent Human Rights Advisory Board and released the Human Rights Policy in 2017, which is in line with the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Human Rights (UNGPs). FIFA’s Human Rights Policy identifies potential adverse human rights risks due to its relationships with other entities in the areas of labor rights, land acquisition and housing rights, discrimination, security, and players’ rights. While rooted in the UNGPs, FIFA implements its human rights commitments through a four-pillar approach, as opposed to the UNGPs three-pillar approach based on the Ruggie Principles of protect, respect and remedy. FIFA’s four-pillar approach to addressing potential human rights risks involves (i) commit and embed; (ii) identify and address; (iii) protect and remedy; and (iv) engage and communicate.

Lessons Learned from Qatar 2022?

As mentioned above, the alleged mistreatment of migrant workers employed in the preparations for hosting the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 has drawn international attention from advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. For its part, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has partnered with Qatar since 2017 to implement an ambitious labor reform agenda, including the adoption of a non-discriminatory minimum wage, with a Minimum Wage Commission to monitor its impact, and new legislation to better protect workers from heat stress. In addition, the ILO has assisted Qatar in dismantling its “kafala” sponsorship system, including removing the requirements for workers to obtain exit permits and no-objection certificates to change employers. Qatar’s partnership with the ILO comes after the 2017 closure of a 2013 complaint by workers’ organizations, alleging non-observance of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (no. 29), which Qatar ratified in 1998.

However, despite Qatar’s ambitious labor reform agenda in partnership with the ILO, researchers at Human Rights Watch note that the additional protections provided for migrant construction workers employed at stadium sites are not applicable to the vast majority of Qatar’s migrant population, including workers building other essential infrastructure for the World Cup, or workers in the hospitality sector.

Following FIFA’s Human Rights Policy, and perhaps learning from the Qatar 2022 experience, the United 2026 Committee has developed a human rights strategy in consultation with stakeholders in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The human rights strategy follows the UNGPs, and also addresses potential human rights risks. Through its consultations, the United 2026 Committee identified risks in the United States, Canada, and Mexico such as discrimination, rights of indigenous peoples, labor rights, supply chain labor, freedom of expression, human trafficking, gender-based violence, freedom of movement and travel, land use and housing rights, privacy concerns, and security and law enforcement.

Focus for United 2026 – Labor Rights in Mexico

In addition to committing to a human rights strategy in accordance with FIFA’s new Human Rights Policy, Mexico is undertaking major changes to its labor legislation in the context of the 2019 United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and U.S. State Department has sponsored the Mexico United 2026 Project to institutionalize reforms and to prevent possible labor violations. Mexico was categorized as a country with systematic violations of rights in the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) 2020 “Worst Countries for Workers” report. However, there is hope that the human rights ambitions of FIFA, and the efforts of organizations committed to labor reform in Mexico, may make the United 2026 World Cup not a time to be concerned for human or workers’ rights, but a time to celebrate sport, united.

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