15 April 2020

FIFA asked to implement a human rights roadmap

FIFA has been asked to implement a roadmap outlining how it will implement its Human Rights Policy into all aspects of its decision making by its Human Rights Advisory Board (HRAB), which indicated frustration at FIFA’s implementation of previous recommendations. Although a FIFA response to the HRAB’s Report indicated significant progress in many areas, detail indicates a lack of coordination in FIFA’s responses to human rights issues.

‘We have deliberately chosen to make only one new recommendation to FIFA in this report, which is on the topic of embedding FIFA’s responsibility to respect human rights into its governance and decision-making structures’, reads the fourth Report of the HRAB (PDF below). ‘This is because:
(a) we have made 78 recommendations to date, many of which have been acted on or closed out but a number remain open and FIFA is still working and/or engaging with us on them,

(b) we received a detailed update from FIFA in January about progress on our recommendations, but FIFA has not been able to provide public updates on how it is addressing our recommendations since its last update in September 2018 due to resource constraints, and
(c) we are waiting to see the full implications of the significant changes in FIFA’s organization of its human rights work that were introduced in September 2019.’
The HRAB recommendation is supported by the Sport & Rights Alliance.

The HRAB Report warns that there is a ‘lack of clarity’ about how accountability for human rights issues will be ensured with regard to strategic decision making within FIFA. It mentions that the FIFA Council is accountable to its Audit and Compliance Committee regarding governance matters, which can raise any issues of non-compliance at the FIFA Congress. However, it warns that the Audit and Compliance Committee doesn’t perform the same role regarding human rights. 

This suggests that human rights issues are not taken as seriously at FIFA as governance issues. Perhaps because it is an independent organisation, the eight members of the HRAB do not appear to be listed on FIFA’s internet site. However, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre lists the members as:

• William Anderson (Adidas);
• Susan Bissell (formerly of UNICEF);
• Rachel Davis (Shift), Chair;
• Sylvia Schenk (Transparency International Germany)
• Theo van Seggelen (FIFPro)
• Lene Wendland (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights)
• Brent Wilton (The Coca-Cola Company)
• Ambet Yuson (Building and Wood Workers’ International).

‘FIFA should be able to communicate publicly about, for example, the number of times that human rights matters have been discussed by the FIFA Council as evidence of how the organization is embedding its human rights commitments at the top levels’, reads the Report. ‘If the FIFA Council is not carrying out its “strategic and oversight” role on human rights, it needs to be held accountable by the Audit and Compliance Committee, and ultimately by the Congress’.

The Report highlights concerns about the lack of a human rights risk assessment before awarding the right to host an expanded 2021 Club World Cup to China. The tournament, which was scheduled for June and July 2021, has now been postponed due to the rescheduling of the 2020 European Championships due to Covid-19.

The Report recognises the success in ensuring that female supporters could attend an Iran vs. Cambodia World Cup qualifier last October, despite a ban on women attending male sporting events in Iran. However, it points out that this only occurred after Sahar Khodayari (#BlueGirl) died in September after setting herself alight after a court appearance following her attempts to attend a March match. It also highlights that authorities capped the number of women who could attend the match, and imposed restrictions on female journalists. 

It is understood that despite FIFA’s efforts, a ban on female spectators remains in place. The HRAB reports that this represents a violation of Article 4 of the FIFA Statutes, which covers non-discrimination, equality and neutrality. Iran has promised that its ban will be lifted in June, reports the Frankfurter Allgemeine. 

The HRAB Report was accompanied by a FIFA Update on the HRAB’s recommendations from September 2018 to November 2019 (PDF below). It outlines that ‘FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights’. It mentions that its human rights commitment is outlined in Article 3 of its Statutes, which reads: ‘FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights’. FIFA outlines that its human rights approach ‘closely follows the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)’.

Yet despite these laudable aims, problematic areas still exist. Although considered traumatic and outdated, gender tests are (arguably) not an area that fall within internationally recognised human rights norms. FIFA’s Gender Verification Regulations (PDF below) still feature on FIFA’s internet site, despite FIFA arguing that are no longer in use and promising to remove them at Play The Game in October 2019. It is understood that FIFA is reluctant to remove them because they are used by certain national associations as a form of verification for performing gender tests.

The Regulations mandate that national associations can issue a request to FIFA, supported by evidence, that a gender test should be performed on a female footballer. If the request is approved, the player’s medical history must be sent to the FIFA General Secretariat and if FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer determines that further investigation is required, ‘the player shall undergo a physical examination performed by an independent expert’.  If the player concerned refuses the physical examination, they are automatically suspended. 

Conflicts between FIFA’s need to find suitable hosts for its ever-expanding list of tournaments and human rights concerns also exist. The HRAB Report lists the release of Hakeem al-Araibi as a success, achieving the HRAB recommendation that FIFA should use its leverage to ensure his safe release. 

FIFA’s Report doesn’t mention that FIFA Council member Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa was alleged to have been involved in the torture of Bahrain dissidents, including members of al-Araibi’s family. Al-Araibi’s detention, took place from November 2018 until February 2019. It doesn’t appear to have harmed FIFA’s consideration of Bahrain as a potential host in a March 2019 plan to expand the Qatar 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. This plan was later shelved.

The FIFA Report also details progress made to ensure that the Qatar 2022 World Cup is sustainable and respects the human rights of its workers. It outlines that its Qatar based subsidiary, Q22, hired a Sustainability Manager in December 2019; and will appoint a Human Rights Manager, a Sustainable Procurement Manager, and an Accessibility Manager in 2020. 

It mentions that the exit permit system, which required workers to get permission from their employer to leave the country, has been abolished. This was a key part of the Kafala system, which ties employees to their employer for five years. Yet many issues are still faced by Qatar 2022 workers, as highlighted by Amnesty International in September last year. FIFA’s Report mentions that work to establish unified standards on worker welfare is ongoing, and adds that it continues to follow whether the abolition of exit permits is being implemented.

The effect that this lack of unified standards can have is illustrated by the Mercury Mena case, where workers involved in building the new city of Lusail, where the 2022 World Cup will open and close, were left stranded without being paid. FIFA’s Report recognises this case, adding that many of the workers have now received pay after discussions held with Qatar’s Ministry of Labour. 

Yet despite these issues, FIFA has failed to fully commit to the HRAB’s recommendation that host countries should directly employ the majority of construction workers on World Cup related sites. ‘FIFA recognises the value and importance of the board’s recommendation and will explore the best ways to implement this recommendation on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the context in which it operates and will operate’, reads its cryptic response.


The financial success of football at the elite level means that FIFA has to be all things to all people at all times. It has to regulate the rules of the game, the complicated international transfer system, discipline clubs, their players and their supporters, regulate bids to host international tournaments and deal with human rights issues. It also has to grow the game commercially in order to ensure that everybody continues to get paid.

Due to the corrupt actions of previous executives, FIFA is now playing catch up. It appears that corruption played a part in the award of the World Cup hosting rights to a desert country that is too hot for football and whose winter months fall at the wrong time of year to fit in with football’s calendar. The greed of certain former executives landed the current FIFA administration with a myriad of human rights issues to resolve, which the previous administration appears not to have considered.

An example concerns how FIFA dealt with sexual abuse perpetrated by Afghan Football Federation (AFF) officials. Keramuudin Karim, former President of the AFF and a former FIFA Standing Committee member, was sanctioned with a life ban for sexually assaulting female players. Sayed Aghazada, a former General Secretary of the AFF, a FIFA Standing Committee member and a member of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Executive Committee, was also sanctioned with a five year ban for being aware of the abuse and failing to report it.

However, it later emerged that FIFA’s 2018 Code of Ethics only prohibited ‘sexual harassment’ and didn’t cover sexual abuse. A cynic might argue that this isn’t surprising. After all, FIFA’s former President was also President of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, and advocated that the key to making women’s football more popular was tighter shorts.

In June, FIFA included sexual abuse as an offence in its 2019 Code of Ethics, introducing a minimum sanction of ten years. At Play The Game 2019, it was pointed out that FIFA’s internet site still features a video of Karim accepting a 2013 FIFA Ballon D’Or Fair Play award. That video (below) has been removed from FIFA’s internet site, but is still available on FIFA TV’s YouTube channel.

The detail in both Reports shows that FIFA is attempting to get its house in order, but holes still exist. FIFA is firefighting, but the consideration of Bahrain as host for an expanded Qatar 2022 World Cup after the detention of Hakeem al-Araibi show that FIFA’s business considerations can still trump human rights concerns.

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