In connection with the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, over 300 delegates from around the world will meet this week in Paris to focus on the issue of sport and human rights. UNESCO is co-hosting the third annual Sporting Chance Forum with the Centre for Sport and Human Rights and the Institute for Human Rights and Business.
I am honoured to serve as Chair of the new Centre that was established earlier this year to harness the power of sport to promote human rights in the lives of millions, if not billions, of people around the world and help ensure that all connected with sport respect human rights in their own activities.
The Sporting Chance Forum aims to leverage collective action to tackle some of the critical challenges facing the world of sport. Over recent years, the more than 40 organisations who make up the Centre’s Advisory Council, representatives of which will be participating in the Forum, have taken important steps forward. But as we gather in Paris, there are critical issues of concern that must be faced as well.
First, the nature of human rights abuses linked to sport are often systemic and cultural and must be addressed urgently. The revelations around child abuse in gymnastics and swimming in the USA have stunned the world, and are only the tip of an iceberg. Clearly the majority of those committed to sport are respectful of the rights of the young regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religion, LGBTI status or disability – but there are some in positions of power that are serial abusers of human rights. For example, recent reports relating to the culture of abuse in Afghanistan’s national women’s football team have surfaced incidences of physical and sexual abuse, death threats, and rape. We must listen to the voices of those affected and act swiftly both to ensure accountability and to prevent future abuses.
Athletes and players can also be vulnerable in other ways. The Bahraini football player Hakeem Al-Araibi faces an uncertain future under detention in Thailand and potentially imprisonment and a high risk of torture if forcibly returned to Bahrain in the days ahead. Although Hakeem now lives and plays football in Australia, having been granted asylum there, a “red notice” had been issued by Interpol and he was taken into custody while on holiday in Thailand. This Interpol request has now been withdrawn but he remains in extreme jeopardy. No one in sport should be exposed to such intimidation and threats. I call on all those responsible and those who could exercise their influence to protect Hakeem and return him safely to his home in Australia.
This is not to forget others whose rights are at risk. The workers who build the infrastructure for mega-sporting events in places such as Tokyo, Qatar and Beijing need to have their rights respected too, in particular migrant workers. Fans need also to enjoy sport within safe environments, free from discrimination and there is no basis at all for excluding segments of the population from participating or watching sport, be they Muslim minorities in countries such as Myanmar or China, on the one hand, or women football fans in Iran on the other. We will hear directly from some of these affected groups during the forthcoming Sporting Chance Forum in Paris. France will be hosting a number of major events over the years ahead and it too needs to ensure it is fully inclusive of all segments of the local population.
The human rights challenges in sport are complex and require collective action where all stakeholders – be they sports bodies, hosts, governments, sponsors, broadcasters, trade unions and NGOs – stand together as true equals. Partnership means the powerful have to be willing to work in new ways for the greater good. The Centre for Sport and Human Rights will cooperate with everyone but will also stand as an independent actor - a trusted and impartial voice which places human beings at the centre of every decision and every action.
Chair, Centre for Sport and Human Rights