The Social Contract Between Human Rights and International Sports Tournaments


International sports competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup help bring human rights issues to the forefront of the news cycle, whether it be through heightened media coverage or cases of athlete activism. Throughout history, the governing bodies of the International Olympic Committee and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association have faced pressure from the public and human rights defenders to rectify human rights violations exacerbated by their sporting events. Hosting rights for recent tournaments, like the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the Beijing Winter Olympics, have been awarded to nations with long track records of abusive and discriminatory behavior. These decisions by the IOC and FIFA to select such nations as hosts have placed the host nation selection process under scrutiny and called into question how hosts should be held accountable if they commit human rights crimes. 

For the first time, the IOC and FIFA have updated their hosting and bidding contracts to reflect their obligation to protect human rights. Specifically, the IOC has promised to, “protect and respect human rights,” while FIFA has newly required member associations to “respect Internationally Recognised Human Rights.” 

To condemn human rights violations on the global stage, transnational sporting organizations should wield these contractual agreements to bind host nations to this humane and responsible approach. By imposing obligations on host countries to protect human rights, monitoring host countries, and offering remedies for violations, a transnational private organization like the IOC can pursue real legal recourse against public and private actors in line with domestic and international laws. While current contracts remain imperfect, they represent steps toward ending a cycle of inaction and creating more sustainable, long-lasting change.

A History of Mistakes

The 1936 Berlin Olympics helped bring Germany back to the international community after World War I. However, when the Nazis excluded Jewish athletes from the German Olympic team, an international outcry ensued, alongside accusations that Germany was violating the Olympic code of equality and fair play. Despite this, the IOC remained steadfast in allowing Germany to host the games. 

The IOC was not the only perpetrator of injustice, though. Even the US Amateur Athletic Union voted against a boycott of the games, with American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage leading the movement to compete in Berlin. Critics accused Americans of discrimination when two Jewish American athletes were replaced by African American ones, in an attempt to avoid upsetting the strongly anti-semitic Nazi government. Clearly, both the international community and the IOC did not do enough, appearing to be complicit in allowing the Nazis to use the Games as a platform to showcase the German “master race.” Shortly after, the Nazis committed a mass genocide of Jewish people in the Holocaust.

Having learned their lesson, the IOC did not underestimate the gravity of apartheid, instead opposing the racial segregation policy that discriminated against non-white South Africans and prevented them from competing in the Olympics. When the South African government imprisoned anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela in 1962, the United Nations formally condemned apartheid, and the IOC barred South Africa from the Tokyo 1964 Games. 

However, it was not until almost 30 years later, in 1989, when a combination of internal protest, the risk of a civil war, and international pressure forced South African president FW de Klerk to release political prisoners and repeal Apartheid laws. While the IOC did augment the pressure for change that was applied by the greater international community, South Africa only reversed its policies after much internal strife. Thus, the following questions arise: Are sports tournament restrictions and punishments only a symbolic gesture? Or, do they make a true difference and hold the potential to alter the path of history?

Recent Tournaments

This problem is not confined to the history books. In recent years, documented abuses manifested in Olympic tournaments like Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014, Rio de Janeiro 2016, Beijing 2022, as well as Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. Large-scale forced evictions, the arrests of rights defenders and protesters, and the censorship of political views and media reports marred these events. Sochi was tainted by migrant worker abuses, media crackdowns, forced evictions, and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. In Rio, wealth inequality spurred police brutality and the mass removal of homeless people from the city. Qatar’s 2022 World Cup saw FIFA face criticism for ignoring the abuse of stadium workers and the suppression of critics and journalists. Weak labor protection and a poor government track record prompted Amnesty International to call FIFA’s choice of host nation irresponsible.

During the 2022 Beijing Games, the Chinese government ratcheted up censorship to suppress coverage of any negative news. A Dutch reporter was dragged away from the camera during a live report and a Finnish cross-country skier had to delete photos she took of flooding in the Olympic Village. A comment made by American freestyle skier Eileen Gu on Instagram was also taken down, and tennis star Peng Shuai was seemingly forced to retract her sexual assault allegations against a former top Chinese official in strange public meetings with the IOC. China worsened its already poor human rights record by continuing the censorship of free media and mass arrest of activists protesting Chinese interference in Hong Kong under the 2020 National Security Law. Moreover, China has subjected the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to forced labor, detention camps, and mass sterilization. Given that China has gone to great lengths to hide the internment of Uyghurs, the international community must demand greater transparency from hosting countries to expose such violations.

Unsuccessful Interventions

How can the world use hosting countries’ temporary publicity to draw attention to their often hidden violations? Historically, rights activists and journalists have tried to bring about change by increasing the pressure on the host nations of mega-sporting events. However, history demonstrates that intensifying the international media coverage of host nation mistreatments can worsen the situation.

During the Cold War, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics after Russia invaded Afghanistan. However, instead of pressuring Russia into leaving Afghanistan, the boycott pushed Russia to double down in its efforts in order to further defy the West. With the international spotlight on Moscow, Russia did not want to seem subservient to the West’s foreign policy. 

Years later, in June 2013 Russia passed an anti-gay law criminalizing anyone who promoted “nontraditional sexual relationships” to minors. International condemnation followed and spilled into the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Although the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the anti-gay law violated the Olympic Charter and the “right to family” of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, further international scrutiny and criticism only toughened the Russian government’s stance on this issue. Russian authorities silenced pro-LGBTQ activists through imprisonment and reinforced their attacks on free speech for years after the 2014 games. 

Change Starts at the Top

Many human rights defenders and athletes believe that change needs to come from the leaders of the sports organizations who have awarded their tournaments to countries engaging in human rights atrocities. In an interview with the HPR, Rémi Drolet, a cross-country skier who attended the 2022 Beijing Olympics, argued that there must be “a better screening process” when selecting host countries, especially since “we knew that China did not have the best human rights record.” Indeed, not only did the IOC accept China’s bid, but the organization never used its committee’s considerable leverage to push for transparency or change from the Chinese government. Human Rights Watch member Yaqiu Wang accused the IOC of being complicit in China’s violations due to its silence on these issues. IOC spokesman Mark Adams responded and told the press that Xinjiang discussions were not “particularly relevant” to the IOC. In fact, IOC president Thomas Bach repeatedly defended his organization’s host city choice, noting that the IOC did not represent a political body that could mandate changes to sovereign states’ laws. He also criticized “the dark clouds of the growing politicization of sport on the horizon.”

Yet, this complaint against political correctness wrongly attempts to excuse the IOC from its moral obligations to the rest of the world. The reality is that leadership and messaging matter to the global human rights community. A prime example of the importance of broad messaging was when the human rights group Equidem reported on the discrimination toward and abuses of the workers who built the stadiums for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup. On the eve of the tournament opening, FIFA President Gianni Infantino blasted the West for their “hypocrisy” in criticizing the host nation’s human rights record. He noted his European roots and alluded to how European imperialism has also led to human rights abuses for the last 3000 years. Infantino’s leadership on the world stage mattered — he disappointed rights activists who felt that he sent the wrong message in attempting  to defend Qatar via a misplaced moral lesson. 

Contractual Protection and Legal Solutions

Complexities exist when it comes to holding countries, companies, or individuals accountable within the structure of tournaments like the Olympics. Public and private sector entities and national and international organizations take part in these Games. Instead of viewing potential disputes and claims through the lens of either domestic or international law, scholars point to a “transnational private legal order” controlled by governing bodies like the IOC. In an interview with the HPR, Daniela Heerdt of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights explained that organizations like the IOC or FIFA are regulated by the Swiss Civil Code as “associations,” a categorization that enables them to “generate their own rules” and escape state regulation. Given this independent jurisdiction, they themselves can strengthen human rights policies via their contracts with various partners.

In 2017, the IOC revised its Host City Contract and bidding regulations to include human rights principles. It listened to a coalition of human rights organizations, athletic groups, and trade unions in referencing the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Host cities will now have to comply with international human rights standards and laws applicable in the Host Country. These contracts will have “concrete and measurable human rights impact indicators,” in hopes of protecting the rights of expression and assembly as well as the right to housing. In sum, hosts will be obliged to respect human rights, prohibit any discrimination, and establish a reporting mechanism to monitor these issues. The new HCC will first apply to the 2024 Paris Olympics, and the first iteration of the bidding requirements awarded the 2026 Winter Olympics to Milano Cortina.

Contracts with tighter regulations will require accountability and enforcement mechanisms to be effective, though. For instance, while rising labor abuses in Qatar prompted FIFA to institute its own human rights policy in 2017, FIFA did not include any enforcement channels. The IOC also needs to clarify its process by defining thresholds for violations, reporting logistics, and how host cities can “remedy” any infractions. And even if the IOC does take legal steps against perpetrators, the victims of human rights abuses do not benefit at all. Any financial or procedural penalties would be between the violators and the IOC. Human rights victims would not receive any compensation. Furthermore, the SCC allows for arbitration through the Court of Arbitration for Sport rather than litigation, which enables the involved parties to “decide on the applicable procedure and applicable law.” Thus, in its current form, IOC rights policies may not successfully hold host cities legally responsible, and rights holders will continue to suffer.

Reining in the Private Sector

In recent Games, like the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the IOC has not taken adequate steps to ensure that private companies sponsoring the games respect human rights as it relates to the supply and production of their products. According to Human Rights Watch, IOC officials never thoroughly examined uniforms and other products or screened for links to rights violations in Xinjiang. When the IOC released statements about their investigations right before the start of the Games, gaps existed in their supply chain analysis. In addition, the 13 top Olympic Partners remained silent about these issues.

Extending human rights-based contracts to the private sector can reinforce the IOC’s human rights standards. The IOC can shore up their clothing contracts for official sponsors by tying economic incentives and penalties to human rights. Obtaining legal consequences for contract breaches will take effort, but this approach could open up the possibility for other entities to follow suit. For example, International Rights Advocates have previously sued U.S. giants like Tesla, Apple, and Google for their complicity in supporting human rights violations. 

Laws requiring businesses to ethically source materials can aid rights activists in their fight against host countries in violation of ethical practices. In an interview with the HPR, a Harvard Uyghur student — who is quoted anonymously for fear of retaliation from the Chinese government — cited the efficacy of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans the entry of Chinese goods produced by enslaved Uyghurs, in making “a lot of companies more conscious of how they source their materials.” The student pointed out that “taking a more punitive stance on a company’s complicity in these human rights violations also creates a culture shift about how we think about sourcing goods.” Applying this type of ban to sporting event sponsors can more effectively send a message of support for human rights everywhere. Thus, these legal avenues can punish violator host countries both symbolically and financially.

Contracts and Beyond 

International sports institutions have finally begun to recognize their role in protecting human rights, as the IOC formally sanctioned limited athlete protests for the first time in 2021. With the advent of civil liberty-protecting contracts for Olympic hosts and regulations for their bids, there is hope that freedoms surrounding international sports venues will improve. Incorporating the same contract strategy within the private sector can further demonstrate the IOC’s commitment to defending human rights. These agreements solidify the social contract between human rights and nations, but their success will depend on the unified support and alignment of IOC leaders, rights activists, and legal advisers as they seek to achieve common goals. Only time will tell if steadfast coordination and collaboration by all involved parties will make a positive impact on the trajectory of human rights. 

Below you will find a list of Harvard student organizations that address human rights issues mentioned in the article, listed in no particular order:

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