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Raising the bar: Advancing human rights through good governance in the world of sport

Centre for Sport and Human Rights

By William Rook and David Alfrey 

On 8 July 2021, the Centre for Sport and Human Rights announced a fully independent structure, creating a permanent governance model premised on commitments to advancing  human rights and modelling good governance. In working to achieve a world of sport that fully respects human rights, we’ve committed ourselves as an organisation to embedding human rights and good governance principles within the foundations of our own governance. As a new organisation, this is a priority as we seek to foster authenticity and credibility throughout the sports ecosystem. Equally, given that the Centre has grown out of a multi-stakeholder process, standing on the shoulders of many committed institutions who have each endorsed the Sporting Chance Principles, all involved wished to ensure that our new governance structure was robust. Support from Clifford Chance was critical in turning those commitments into reality.

Five key principles are at the heart of the Centre’s governance model: transparency, accountability, independence, inclusion and participation.

  • Transparency: As a Swiss-based organisation, the Centre’s Articles of Association make explicit that all participants in any formal discussion must have the same access to information and respect the confidentiality of other parties involved. Building in ‘equality of information’ provisions helps promote transparency and encourage stakeholder engagement, supporting the goal that decisions are made with the spirit of common purpose. The Articles also ensure all directors have sufficient information when making any decisions. Internal policies and an evolving governance handbook ensure those who interact with the Centre can fully understand how it operates.
  • Accountability: The new governance documents create a series of mechanisms for formal bodies to hold each other accountable for advancing the Centre's mission. With a corporate structure that includes a UK Charity as its operating entity, regulated by the UK Charity Commission, mechanisms are in place to ensure that the Centre acts exclusively in the best interests of its beneficiaries. That includes publishing an annual report and financial statements every year. In addition, the parent Association in Switzerland has voluntarily bolstered its Articles to include accountability mechanisms on a par with a UK Charity.
  • Independence: Many individuals involved in sports governance carry multiple responsibilities – not an uncommon challenge to be managed through ongoing disclosures, up to date registers of interests, and proper management of conflicts. A Nominations Committee identified a diverse and experienced board of nine directors to act in their personal capacities to lead the organisation and ensure our independence. The Centre’s statutes make clear the duties of each director and member to the organisation, and ensure that individuals and institutions cannot use the Centre to further their own purposes or agendas. The organisation’s independence was a critical consideration throughout this process. All involved wished to avoid a potential situation where a purely multi-stakeholder approach, managed by a secretariat, may have lacked momentum and authority to push forward the Centre's mission at critical moments. Establishing the Centre as an independent entity with powers to set its own course, informed by engagement with actors across the sports ecosystem, was seen as the most effective way forward.
  • Inclusion: In addition to policies on non-discrimination and equality embedded at the highest governance levels, and a special duty on those in leadership positions to promote inclusive behaviours, the Centre’s Code of Conduct sets a precedent by creating a framework for ensuring  everyone feels safe and supported in their work with the Centre, and has the authority to call out any failures in governance. The principle of inclusion also cuts across the Centre’s approach to governance – ensuring that all relevant parties are engaged and have an opportunity to contribute to decision-making. Inclusion and diversity were also key priorities in establishing the Centre’s inaugural board. An additional innovation mandates that each participating institution in any formal body of the Centre (including the Advisory Council) must name two representatives, a maximum of one of whom can be male.
  • Participation: As a convenor of collective action, bringing together a diverse range of stakeholders, including people whose rights may be affected or directly impacted by sport, the Centre’s Advisory Council includes governments, intergovernmental organisations, trade unions, NGOs, sponsors, broadcasters, sports bodies and major event organising committees. This diverse group has participated in the Centre’s governance by appointing the members of the Nominations Committee, who conducted the search for directors. All institutions in the Advisory Council are committed to the Sporting Chance Principles and to participating in other Centre activities in meaningful ways. Participation has been scoped to provide different levels of engagement with the Centre. For example, Advisory Council participation is based on a commitment to the Sporting Chance Principles, while ultimate responsibility for Centre’s governance rests with seven governing Members of its Swiss Association, who have taken on duties under Swiss law (akin to being shareholders). A unique element involves the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), both of which played prominent roles in establishing the Centre. The ILO and OHCHR now serve as Permanent Observers to the governing Members, a role recognised in our statutes in a way compatible with the privileges and immunities of UN agencies. This is an unprecedented step for a new independent non-governmental organisation, and speaks to the support those agencies have for our mission.

What happens next?

Governance is an ongoing and evolving process to be developed and strengthened as organisations grow and is important in creating a credible basis for advancing social impact. As we develop, the Centre is committed to sharing lessons and ensuring transparency, with the view that good governance creates the necessary platform from which all involved in sport (just like other sectors) can effectively implement human rights due diligence and related sustainability responsibilities. We’re hopeful that by sharing our efforts and experiences, other stakeholders in sport may take the opportunity to consider their own governance policies, structures, decision making processes and composition. The Centre’s unique structure – fully independent, developed through a multi-stakeholder process, and with a representative cross-section of key actors participating, may also serve as a helpful model for a diverse range of stakeholders to come together in tackling other significant social issues.

Mary Robinson Launches The Centre For Sport & Human Rights

Mary Robinson, the Founding Chair of the Centre said: “The new governance structure is an innovative approach to having an independent organisation emerge from a multi-stakeholder process, and with the participation of UN agencies I see enormous potential for the Centre to address complex challenges in sport.”

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