Bridging Human Rights and Sport in Africa

Centre for Sport and Human Rights

Sport has a strong footprint across all 54 African nations, and Africa as a continent appears increasingly interested in playing a more prominent role in the hosting of future sporting events.

South Africa hosted the continent’s first World Cup in 2010, and Morocco appears keen to be the second, with its bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup and discussions about potentially bidding again for 2030 with neighbouring countries. The International Olympic Committee has also looked to Africa for potential hosts, and only accepted bids from African countries for the next Summer Youth Olympics in 2022. Senegal was selected and will become the first African nation to host an Olympic event in just three years’ time.

These are encouraging developments for Africa on multiple levels. But hosting such events also carries risks for people linked to sport - from athletes to construction workers to fans, just to name a few.

Two Disparate Worlds

To advance dialogue on the challenges and opportunities of hosting major sporting events in African countries, the Centre for Sport and Human Rights recently hosted a roundtable discussion in Rabat, Morocco. The workshop was attended by a range of participants including African National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from the Olympic, Commonwealth, and Francophonie sporting traditions.

The dialogue in Rabat also benefited from the perspectives of human rights experts.

Africa is home to more National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) than any other continent – 32 in total. NHRIs are well placed to engage with their counterparts in the world of sport to ensure that human rights are respected at every stage in the event lifecycle. A growing number of African countries have taken positive first steps towards developing national action plans on business and human rights (NAP) which are also of relevance to the world of sport. Six countries are currently in the development phase of new NAPs (Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zambia), and a further four countries are engaging with their respective NHRIs or local civil society organisations to develop NAPs (Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Tanzania).

These foundations hold strong potential for bridging two well established, but disparate, communities on the continent – that of sport on the one hand, and human rights on the other. 

Seizing the Opportunity

During the workshop, it was recognised that significant human rights developments on the continent have been “reactive” responses to atrocities, such as apartheid in South Africa, or the genocide in Rwanda. Too often, human rights are presented as punitive and legalistic responses with too little attention to holistic thinking about what might happen in future, how to mitigate risks, and ultimately, how to use a human rights-based approach to create and maximise opportunities.

In other words, rights-based interventions and conversations in Africa have not always been associated with solutions or opportunities. This could be true too of developments around sport, if the sport and human rights movement is not careful.

The actors responsible for the activities, products, and operations of sport – sports bodies, local organising committees, hosts, and other organisers, from the grassroots to the elite – have the responsibility to prevent adverse impacts their work can pose to people, and remedy harms that do occur. These range from safeguarding against abuses to children in and around sport, ensuring equal access for fans, preventing displacement of communities hosting sporting events, as well as addressing risks of trafficking or forced labour. 

At the same time, prevention and remedy strategy is inextricably linked with the question of legacy.

Sporting events are often proposed to municipalities as having multiple long-term benefits, such as improved infrastructure, job opportunities and development of local communities. The challenge lies in making sure these benefits are realised in practice, and felt by the majority of the local people. There has been a notable trend towards public referenda to decide whether hosting a major event is something the local population wants, and in the majority of cases, people have actually voted against hosting. This is largely because, historically, local populations are simply not seeing the benefits of these events. 

A human rights-based approach offers the opportunity to redefine “legacy” of sporting events and what they can bring to communities hosting them. Beyond the positive power sport holds in uniting otherwise disparate and divided groups and people, a rights-based approach can also legitimise sporting events by helping ensure tangible benefits are felt by those most affected. Sports activities and sporting events can be a catalyst for positive social, economic and environmental impact going forward, but only if respect for human rights is part of the equation.

Bridging the Divide

Our discussions in Rabat identified four key concepts that are critical to embedding human rights in African sport:

  1. The reasons why respect for human rights is part of the business of sporting organisations need to be clear and incentivised – that means national and local implementing organisations with limited resources need easy to use guidance and capacity support.
  2. The positive human rights and development opportunities linked to sport and hosting sporting events also need to be clear to national human rights organisations, so that they can support their national sports federations in adopting human rights-based approaches.
  3. By embedding human rights into ongoing processes around issues such as child safeguarding and sustainable development, the benefits of a rights-based approach will be more readily demonstrable to those responsible for successful delivery of sport and sporting events.
  4. While many countries experience similar human rights challenges, the methods of tackling them between Francophone and Anglophone countries are sometimes different. These differences must be recognised and respected as there is much to be learned from all countries in advancing respect for rights.

The Centre for Sport and Human Rights is committed to working with partners in Africa and helping build understanding and collective action on the links between sport and human rights. There is a great opportunity now to come together and ensure that the positive power of sport is maximised and that meaningful legacy is ensured. We thank all those who joined us in Rabat for a valuable discussion that we look forward to building on this in the months and years ahead.

Related Articles