Taking stock of 2023

Centre for Sport and Human Rights

Human rights are under threat globally - amidst a rise in populism, authoritarianism and impunity, accompanied by ongoing conflicts and humanitarian crises. With the international human rights system facing generational challenges and historical reckonings, we all share a vision that sport - one of humanity’s greatest social manifestations - can play a prominent role in supporting, respecting, and promoting universal human rights.

As multilateralism and international standards come under mounting pressure, it is increasingly important to reinforce the role of sport as a social good - delivered in accordance with internationally recognised human rights principles, norms and standards. At a time when the “power of sport” is frequently instrumentalised, it is more important than ever to establish baseline expectations for all actors in the sport ecosystem to meaningfully commit to respecting and upholding human rights and labour standards for all affected by sport and its activities. Through developing and maintaining a social licence rooted in respect for human rights, sport and its unparalleled reach can be further leveraged in the interests, and with the participation, of all those affected.

With increasing awareness of the human rights abuses and violations that exist within sport, there is a pressing need to collaborate to bring human rights due diligence into all aspects of sport. Through doing so, we can work towards a shared vision of responsible sport - with people at the centre - offering a foundation for sport to provide authentic leadership on global challenges and advance human rights.

In a world looking for leadership on critical issues, sports provide scope for optimism, championing values such as respect, inclusion, fairness, and integrity. However, despite its vast contributions to society, sport has been complacent about its own involvement in serious harm to individuals, particularly athletes and wider communities hosting its events, with detrimental effects on the legitimacy and credibility of everyone in the world of sport. Examples of human rights abuses in sport mirror or exacerbate those outside of sport, such as discrimination, including sexism, racism, and homophobia; harassment and abuse, including the physical and sexual abuse of athletes, as well as corruption and labour abuses. Given systemic power imbalances in sport, athletes are particularly at risk often working in environments where their safety and rights as workers are under threat, or aren’t recognised. By walking the walk and tackling its own human rights issues, sport can serve as a beacon for human rights everywhere.

Encouragingly, sport is now more aware of its social dimensions than ever before and has begun to engage with its positive and negative impacts on the human rights and labour rights of individuals and communities worldwide. Public awareness of human rights issues associated with sport and its most prominent events has never been greater, with many actors within the sport ecosystem, including civil society, trade unions and investigative journalists, playing key roles and using the spotlight of mega-events to shed light on human rights issues in many parts of the world. This increased scrutiny over the past decade has coincided with a maturing architecture for non-state actors to address their human rights responsibilities - namely through the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and aligned standards.

Over recent years, global sports bodies have started to embed international human rights standards into their policies and practices, including bidding and hosting requirements for major events. FIFA became the first international sport federation to adopt a human rights policy in 2017. Organisations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Commonwealth Sport, and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) have since developed strategies, charters, or position statements to affirm their human rights commitments, culminating with the IOC adopting amendments to the Olympic Charter to include human rights in October 2023. From this critical scaffolding, innovative and collaborative work is needed to support - and ensure - sport implements its human rights responsibilities.

Serious engagement on human rights within sport has advanced furthest in major events, where sports bodies act most like businesses and where established corporate approaches to human rights due diligence most clearly apply. In 2018, FIFA included human rights criteria into the bidding requirements for hosting its biggest events, awarding the 2026 Men’s FIFA World Cup to Canada, Mexico and the United States with a requirement that every host city have a human rights plan. A similar approach was taken for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, there is now a significant pivot towards a future where human rights commitments and processes are embedded into the entire lifecycle of sport’s greatest events, including Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris (2024), Milano/Cortina (2026), Los Angeles (2028) and Brisbane (2032). In November 2023, the organisers of the UEFA Euro 2024 Championships adopted a human rights declaration. A requirement to issue an independent human rights risk assessment  and develop a strategy to mitigate human rights risks will be a component of the proposals to host FIFA Men’s and Women’s World Cups in 2027, 2030, 2031, and 2034. Notwithstanding, despite this progress, knowledge of international human rights and labour standards and the requisite processes to implement them is still new, and remains unfamiliar to those awarding, planning and organising sport and its events.

We therefore enter 2024 at an inflection point. On one hand, there is increasing demand from sports bodies, federations, clubs, event organisers and host cities, all seeking to build their own capacity to understand and act in accordance with their human rights responsibilities in a world that is very new to them. This presents an immediate opportunity for leaders across sport to do well at incorporating human rights standards and considerations within their operations, strengthening sport in doing so, and demonstrating that these strategies are possible; both help to manage risk and add value, and can resonate and connect with communities. On the other hand, implementation of human rights commitments and responsibilities, is ultimately where sport will be tested. Will the world of sport, with increasing human rights expertise and support, evolve and develop better practices for the sector itself and pilot, catalyse, and develop good practices with broader applications, making a significant contribution to global efforts to uphold human rights? Or, will hard-fought and historic human rights commitments devolve into performative exercises with limited accountability? Given this inflection, how can each of us play our role - individually and collectively - to ensure these commitments become the new normal?

We therefore enter 2024 with much progress that has been made, but much work ahead to ensure that these new commitments are the dawn of the new normal in sport and sporting events.  The Centre will be working hard to help sport to take up these responsibilities, and embrace this brave new world. Please join us.

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