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Accountability of International Sports Organizations for Human Rights Violations


The 2022 FIFA World Cup has been called the world cup of shame and for good reason too. The World Cup preparations being made by host country of Qatar has already documented large scale abuse of migrant labor. Being made to work in sub human conditions, they toil in 49 degrees of temperature for 78 hours per week at a meager pay.[1] They are deprived of their passports the moment they land in the gulf country and are not allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the permission of the employer.[2] The ITUC estimates that more than 7000 workers will die before a ball is kicked in the 2022 World Cup.[3]

This is a blatant violation of the rights to safe and healthy working condition, to choice of work, to freedom of movement and, in fact, the very basic right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Expectedly, it raised a lot of furore and led to talks of boycott. It also raised a very pertinent question – that of the liability of the International Sports Federation which is organizing the event.

Are they liable for the violations or the host country? Which forum is going to enforce this liability? This article attempts to answer these questions

Human Rights Violations during International Sporting Events

Sport has always been an exemplar of nationalism, tolerance, secularism and excellence. With players of different regions and races coming together for the victory of their nation, it has always been vouched as something noble. So when the world tunes into the glitz, glamour and passion of these sporting events it tends to overlook the dark underbelly comprising of wide-spread, unparalleled human rights violations.

To take the most recent example, for organizing the 2016 Rio Olympics the Brazilian authorities undertook extensive street clearances during which homeless youths were forcibly interned in juvenile detention centers. The overcrowding in the cells of these centers led to a fire on the day of the Olympic opening ceremony resulting in the death of two and injury to seven children.[4]

Further, around 22,000 families were evicted from their homes and relocated to dilapidated and overcrowded government social housing.[5]

Apart from the forced evictions, another serious issue is the violations of the rights of the workers as evidenced in the preparations for the Qatar World Cup and the 2018 South Korea Winter Olympics.[6]

A pattern of abuse common to the organization of all such sporting events is the suppression of the right to freedom of expression. In an attempt to whitewash its image the host country silences all critical voices through the means of arrests, murder, torture etc. The most searing and appalling of all incidents is the Tlatelolco Square bloodbath in which approximately 300 students were brutally fired upon and killed for protesting against the 1968 Mexico Olympics. Even more telling was that the IOC refused to cancel or postpone the game commenting that the Olympics cannot be postponed “every time the politicians violate the laws of humanity”.[7] This shows that, for the longest time, the Olympic committee as well as other sporting organizations considered themselves unassociated with and unbound by the violations committed during the organization of international sporting events.

Are international sports organizations liable for the violations?

To address human rights abuses, it is extremely important to identify the responsible actors and place the onus of remedying the violations on them. However, with respect to international sporting events identification becomes really difficult owing to the multiplicity of actors involved, from international sports federations to national and local sports bodies, national and international companies, sponsors etc.[8]

Primarily, the responsibility can be fixed on the state as many of the acts like the forced evictions and arbitrary arrests are carried out by state organs like the police and the military. Thus, redressal can be made through the municipal courts and other prescribed national legal measures.

However, this would imply that the international organizations and other non-state actors are completely absolved of their role and complicity in the human rights violations.

International sports bodies like the IOC and the FIFA are responsible for granting host city contracts. Many a time these contracts are given to countries infamous for their oppressive and repressive regimes, like Qatar, knowing very well that large scale human rights violations will ensue.

Further, these federations give instructions to the host city and supervise the organization and execution of the entire event. Thus, more often than not they are in the know when it comes to these violations.

Also, despite being so aware, in the past and even now, these organizations have failed to call off the event or revoke the host city contract citing huge investments as a reason.

Therefore, their blatant disregard for human rights and failure to take preventive action make them facilitators and abettors of the abuse.

Can their liability be enforced?

It must be noted that although the international sports bodies are liable for human rights violations to a great extent, it is practically impossible to enforce this liability. This impossibility has its roots in both the substantive and procedural aspects of law.

From the substantive aspect, it must be seen that all the enforceable and binding international instruments of human rights like the ICCPR, the Convention on the Rights of the Children etc. are inapplicable to these international organizations.

Firstly, they are not parties to these conventions. Secondly, under these instruments States are the primary duty-bearers and they alone can be held accountable for any human rights violations.

There are soft law instruments like the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) or the Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises which provide for responsibility of non-state entities but the international sports organizations can hardly be classified as businesses or enterprises.

Though there are the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of International Organizations (ARIO), they too are non-binding.

From the procedural point of view, the challenge posed is that of a suitable forum. The international sports bodies have repeatedly maintained that they are not subject to the jurisdiction of the ordinary municipal courts. Therefore, whether they will honor the remedies given by such courts in cases concerning human rights violations is doubtful.

Another international tribunal which takes cognizance of human rights abuses is the International Court of Justice. However, the ICJ statute very clearly lays down that only states can invoke its jurisdiction.

The only remaining option is the Court of Arbitration for Sports. The code of sports related arbitration provides that CAS can entertain “any sport related dispute … involving any activity or matter related to sport”.[9] However, as per the CAS website only athletes, clubs and sports federations can bring a matter before it.[10] Further, its jurisdiction is limited to parties of the arbitration agreement and thus in the absence of any such agreement the victims of sports related human rights violations obviously cannot approach it.


Even though international sport organizations are liable, there is no mechanism to hold them accountable for human rights abuses during organization of international sporting events. The quickest possible solution is to enhance the jurisdiction and capabilities of CAS to entertain such cases since it is already dealing with sport related disputes. However, this would entail a fundamental change in the very structure of CAS since it would no longer function as an arbitral tribunal.


[1] [2] Ibid [3] Ibid [4] Gareth A Davies, Human rights violations affected 22,000 families at Rio Olympics, says report The Telegraph (2016), (last visited Nov 5, 2018). [5]ibid [6] SOUTH KOREA: 2018 Winter Olympics, Sport and Human Rights (2015), (last visited Nov 4, 2018). [7] 10 Sporting Events Plagued By Human Rights Abuses, Listverse (2015), (last visited Nov 5, 2018). [8] Daniela Heerdt, Tapping the potential of human rights provisions in mega-sporting events' bidding and hosting agreements SpringerLink (2018), (last visited Nov 5, 2018). [9] [10] Ibid 8

Submitted by,

Jyotika Randhawa,

4th Year, B.A.LL.B.,

ILS Law College.

(Images used for representational purpose only.)


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