Amnesty International last month released findings from a poll conducted with more than 17,000 adults in 15 countries asking what people thought was important in making the choice of host for the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

While the safety and security of fans, athletes and volunteers came out top, the second most popular response was ‘human rights, including workers’ rights, press freedom, and non-discrimination’.

In seven countries, including Switzerland, where both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are based, human rights were judged the most important consideration in making the choice.

The findings of the poll coincide with the anticipated commencement of the process to award the 2030 FIFA World Cup, with Amnesty keen to get in early to remind FIFA of its human rights responsibilities.

In launching the report, Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s Head of Economic and Social Justice stated that, “FIFA must rigorously apply the highest human rights standards in evaluating all bids to host its flagship tournament, demand clear human rights action plans, and reject any bid that fails to credibly show how serious human rights risks would be prevented, independently monitored, and remedied if abuses occur.”

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This call is the culmination of years of lobbying, advocacy and calling out of FIFA on the decisions it has made in relation to the World Cup.

Amnesty’s most recent intervention builds on more than a decade of discussion and debate within the sport and human rights space that increasingly recognises the inseparable relationship between the two.

A significant body of academic and other reasearch demonstrates that hosting ‘mega’ sport events (which include both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games), are bad for human rights, on many levels.

I recently contributed to a scoping review of sport events and human rights which demonstrated that, across several recent mega sport events, infringements related to labour rights, the rights of the LBGTQI community, restrictions to freedom of expression and assembly, and housing right violations are commonplace when planning and delivering these gargantuan events.

Increased attention to the importance of human rights when bidding, planning and delivering sport events has been the outcome of external pressure that FIFA (and the IOC) has been forced to respond to.

First, during Sepp Blatter’s reign as President, FIFA suffered from widespread claims of corruption and criminality that eventually led to a US federal probe that accelerated Blatter’s resignation.

One of FIFA’s responses was to bring in an internationally renowned human rights expert to inform the development of their own human rights policy.

Since 2017, FIFA has embedded the main tenets of this policy into bidding processes, and created an independent FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board to oversee its human rights commitments.

The Herald: Scotland in their last World Cup in 1998Scotland in their last World Cup in 1998 (Image: free)

In 2019, it awarded the rights to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup to United 2026, a joint bid from the USA, Canada and Mexico. This was the first time that candidates were required to conduct a human rights risk assessment and submit this along with the bid.

The 2026 bid process was undoubtedly influenced by the mistakes FIFA made in awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where labour infringements and the persecution of the LGBTQI community in law cast a shadow over the event.

FIFA has progressed its human rights policies and practices much further and faster than the IOC, though this has not been accomplished without external pressure. The media, advocacy groups, athlete organisations and others have independently and collectively drawn attention to the human right harms caused by the FIFA World Cup, exacerbated by a growing commercial imperative.

Organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF have helped devise workable policies and procedures that FIFA could build on, while also holding them accountable publicly for delivering on their responsibilities.

Previously, the tactics of some non-governmental organisations and oppositional groups had been to publicly call out bad practices or failures of awarding bodies in meeting their human rights obligations.

In recent years, there is evidence that these coalitions are now working more closely with FIFA to inform and influence policy, advising them how best to meet their obligations.

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Naming and shaming is now used only when commitments made through dialogue and discussion are reneged upon in public.

In the last few years, the protection and promotion of human rights have been improved by the actions of influential international non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations that have monitored, published and intervened to address abuses across the world.

However, the test for FIFA and other sport awarding bodies is the extent to which their rhetorical commitments to respecting, protecting and promoting human rights factor into their decision-making, in practice.

Too often in the past, the pursuit of profit has taken precedence over principle, with decisions justified as “sharing the financial benefits of the FIFA World Cup to forgotten continents” while conveniently overlooking the human rights records of the states that have applied and their reasons for wanting to use sport to improve their international standing.

In making decisions about where to award its lucrative tournaments, FIFA has repeatedly undermined its own public commitments to improving human rights. For example, FIFA appears to have ignored its own policies by allowing the Club World Cup to be awarded to China, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Saudi Arabia in recent years without evidence of transparency in decision making or obvious consultation with civil society.

There is evidence that - in recent years - activism for human rights has stimulated change within awarding bodies such as FIFA; via naming and shaming, widespread media coverage and, latterly, through collaboration.

We know from historical examples that human rights leverage diminishes following the award of the event, so it is imperative that FIFA's commitment to enshrining human rights on the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup is replicated for the 2030 bid process.

To avoid repeating the mistakes so vividly apparent at Qatar 2022, we need adherence to human rights principles and practices to be embedded in the mega event lifecycle, from bid preparation through planning and delivery.

Professor David McGillivray, Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, University of the West of Scotland