Craig Foster Opens the 2019 Sporting Chance Forum

The Sporting Chance Forum, held on 21st and 22nd November in Geneva in the historic Room XX of the UN Palais des Nations, serves as a powerful opportunity to discuss the key human rights issues, and their solutions, that exist across the world of sport. 

Hosted by The Centre for Sport and Human Rights, International Labour Organization, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN Office in Geneva, the programme explored how different actors in the world of sport can use their individual and collective leverage to achieve a world of sport that fully respects human rights. 

Opening the Forum was Craig Foster, a former international footballer who lead the global campaign for the release of Hakeem Al Araibi. Hakeem was a player on the Bahrain National Football Team, who was imprisoned in Thailand on his honeymoon for peacefully protesting against injustice in his home country. Foster's opening remarks are available below:



Welcome all and I am delighted to see such an influential gathering from the highest levels of Government and world sport and who have recognized that sport and human rights offers a wonderful, exciting opportunity to live what we believe, to be authentic in our bargain with the people of the world.

Sport has of course convinced the world that we are a force for good. For positive change. For equality of opportunity and even for humanity itself. This promise exists in the statutes and vision statements of almost all sports and the Olympic movement and it is in the acceptance of this offer, in our social contract with global citizens that the goodwill on which all commercial growth exists.

The most important people have accepted this vision, the athletes and fans, and accordingly a vast global business has coalesced around these foundational concepts representing almost 1% of the world’s commerce, greater than a US$1 Trillion industry. Sport is truly a phenomenal business. But it's unique nature means that it is so much more.

In some fora, this commercial scale, power and contribution will be central to the discourse, but not this. In our gathering, we accept that sport exists to assist the people of the world to express themselves, to gain life opportunities, to learn to live in harmony together, to connect between all races, religions, genders and any barrier so often used to divide. But these promises of opportunity can only be realised with basic protections for the rights of all.

This collective bargain is the essence of sport, and this license granted, this social capital which attracts such extraordinary commercial revenues is purchased with the love of the people, and of the world.

People like Hakeem al-Araibi. He represents, in fact, the most vulnerable and important of our constituents, those whose lives are abused, whose rights are breached, whose contract with sport has been broken, obliterated, for whom sport becomes a tool for suppression, oppression, persecution.

Hakeem is the Afghanistan women’s national football team, he is Sahar Khodoyari, he is the US gymnasts whose lives must be rebuilt from the ashes of sport’s failure to uphold our bargain to them. As must his.

As you will discover in the next few days, sport and human rights is a critically important and incredibly valuable field because it has given us all in sport the terminology to understand these harms, to respect our social contract, to prove that we are genuine in being a force for positive change.

Organisations like the Centre for Sport and Human Rights are the vehicle through which sport gains its social legitimacy and becomes the positive force in the daily lives, experiences and achievements of billions of people. What an enervating, captivating opportunity we all have to live up to our promises. And to continue to be richly rewarded for so doing.

This centre, and others like the Sport and Rights Alliance, for example, provide sport with the tools, policies, strategies and foundational principles to live the slogans and vision statements. To honour all our Hakeem’s.

Tomorrow he will have an opportunity to tell his story which is an important reminder that policy is not action, statutes are not commitment, only the starting point. And we will discuss the importance of not only putting the voice of every Hakeem at the centre of sport’s commitment to the rights of its people, to listen to affected groups and provide mechanisms for their voices to be heard and assimilated, but also enabling remedy and reparation, the next critical step.

We have been reminded further in recent weeks, in the football context with which I am most familiar, of this reality. The President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, in awarding future Club World Cups to China in direct contravention of FIFA’s statutory obligation to conduct a human rights audit, said that football does not exist to solve the problems of the world. This is of course true, but all of you in this room will have to decide, as FIFA appears to have done in China’s case, whether sport is willing to potentially contribute to them, exacerbate them or endorse them. This is most disappointing not only because the Uyghur people of Xianxiang might ask whether they are a part of the game, where is their Sporting Chance, but also because of the very risks that Hakeem took to protect the values of football that he believed in, the contract that he signed with FIFA.

For the Game, For the World, was the agreement.

In the 2016 elections which was decided on so small a margin, Hakeem lived his end of the bargain and spoke publicly of the torture he and other athletes faced in Bahrain, and of the failure of governance that saw no support from the current President of the AFC at that time. Though human rights in part contributed to Infantino’s success and despite subsequent statutory implementation, public statements and the positive glow of important and welcome advancements made, incredibly, the agreement sealed with Hakeem’s liberty was dishonoured.

Hakeem’s personal risk that he took for football, resulted in 77 days of incarceration and imminent risk of greater physical harm as well as damaging effects that continue today, the same risks taken by the US gymnasts who spoke out about their experience, and the women of Iran, who lost one of their own, Sahar Kohodoyari.

Sahar, in fact believed so greatly in the contract with FIFA for her rights to be upheld, since she read it in black and white in the sport’s Statutes, that her personal risk proved tragic, as might have Hakeem’s without a global campaign. Recent advances in allowing women into stadiums in Iran are wonderful, a powerful example of sport’s power to influence positive change, but let us accept that it came too late and resolve to hold ourselves to higher standards in future.

This forum is about collective action, shared learnings and collaboration but let us acknowledge that basic principles must ground this discussion.

Protections for people in sport are not discretionary because Sahar and Hakeem demonstrate that lives depend on their adherence, and today avoidance of this responsibility is fraught with immense reputational and commercial risk.

And with authoritarian regimes growing in influence around the world, a planet in which the human rights of people are increasingly under threat everywhere, sport has a choice to make. Pretend that there is no negative impact on participants and stakeholders and refuse to use the immense leverage that governing bodies and major sport institutions have with Governments or accept our responsibility to live up to the values we espouse.

The world urgently needs us to do so.

I congratulate you all for being here and if further validation of your commitment to human rights in sport is required, I propose 3 powerful reasons for sport to adopt internationally-recognised standards of human treatment and protection.

It legitimises the social contract between us, with your Governments and commercial partners. Secondly, it mitigates the rapidly expanding risk that you face when conducting your sport business in regions of the world where human rights abuse takes place and in sport’s own operations, which led to so many major crises for major sports.

Good governance in 2020 dictates that you are well prepared for the crises that await the unprepared and those who continue to argue the long discredited theory of sport’s exceptionalism. As though we exist separate from society, from the human race, from the impacts that we create and at times endorse.

We do not. And what’s more, we told the world we stood for something. For them.

And thirdly, and most excitingly, human rights commitments and benchmarks provide a safe space for sport and all within, including athletes, to advocate for human advancement, avoid the rapidly growing clash of values and become a beacon for positive values in the world.

The UN Guiding Principles, international conventions and global standards are the bulwark against which sport and its participants must lean, to provide protection against increasing commercial pressure to look away from human rights abuse, to avert our gaze from our own players and fans who, irrespective of the flag they carry, believed what we sold, and to be the force for good that we say we are.

Perhaps, in the end, we might simply look at it this way.

Human rights will ensure that all of our vision statements and slogans need not be reprinted and our bargain remade.

I know that you will prosper greatly from this outstanding conference featuring many of the world’s foremost academics and highly respected practitioners, heartily congratulate every step that the centre, its advisory council, Governments and sport has made in this field, warmly welcome your interest and commitment to protecting every Hakeem, and look forward to seeing sport continue to live its public commitment to humanity.Both for the Game. And far more importantly, for the world.

Craig Foster
Former Australian International Footballer

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