The FIFA Qatar World Cup Raises Tough Questions for Activists

Last week, the draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup stoked the excitement of football fans worldwide. But it also reignited debates about the appropriateness of the event’s host, Qatar, which has frequently come under fire for human rights abuses.

Gareth Southgate, the manager of the English national football team, reportedly hosted meetings with his current squad in order to discuss how the team could show its opposition to Qatar’s human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, news of this meeting was poorly received by the CEO of the Qatari partnership that is organizing the tournament, Nasser al-Khater, who urged Southgate to “pick his words carefully.”

Full disclosure: I am not a football fan and am not one of the millions of people impatiently counting down the days to the World Cup, which is scheduled for November. However, Qatar’s hosting of the tournament will have consequences that reach far beyond the world of football—and will have a particular impact on people under the age of 30.

For starters, the 2022 World Cup will profoundly affect Qatar’s young migrant communities. As soon as the country won its bid to host the event in 2010, many commentators and human rights advocates raised concerns about the security and welfare of those who would be enlisted to set up and run the event. In the 12 years that followed, it became clear that those fears were merited. There is now ample evidence of workers on World Cup construction projects living in inhumane conditions and suffering verbal or physical abuse at the hands of their employers. Some have been injured or even killed by hazards in the workplace, according to records compiled by the Business and Human Rights Resource Center.

Qatar’s migrant workers—95 percent of its labor force—are particularly vulnerable to abuse. In 2019, the Qatari government responded to international criticism by announcing reforms to the kafalah system, the legal framework that allows Qatari individuals or companies to sponsor foreign laborers, often under exploitative conditions. Those reforms included the introduction of nondiscriminatory minimum wage. However, data from the Business and Human Rights Resource Center suggests that little has been done to put these new laws into practice.

The reason why the World Cup will especially affect young migrants is because many of them do not even have the minimal protection of the kafala system; rather, they work in Qatar’s informal sector. in 2020, 85.1 percent of working young people aged 15 to 24 in Arab states were employed in the informal sector, according to the International Labor Organization. By increasing the demand for rapid construction projects and large-scale event organization, the World Cup gave a boost to sectors that rely on informal kafalah labor, perpetuating—perhaps even exacerbating—unfair employment practices, to the detriment of Qatar’s young workers.

Many young migrants do not even have the minimal protection of the kafala system; rather, they work in Qatar’s informal sector.

The controversy around Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup will also have global implications. Specifically, it is worth considering how the surrounding debates over the issue will affect young football fans around the world. In 2018, more than 1.1 billion people tuned in to watch the World Cup final between France and Croatia. The reach and influence of this sport is clearly massive—and so, too, will be the effects of the debates that surround it.

As ever, there are two sides to the debate over whether it is appropriate for Qatar to host this event. But in this case, both sides could send bad signals to the world’s young people regarding international justice and cooperation.

First, some argue that by allowing Qatar to host the World Cup despite its long history of abuses against women and the LGBTQ community, FIFA is telling younger generations that some issues are above justice. Despite the government’s promises to improve women’s rights conditions in the country, women in Qatar continue to face significant restrictions on their freedom. When asked by Human Rights Watch, one woman went as far as to say that living as a girl in Qatar was like “constantly” being “in quarantine.” A number of high-profile athletes have also pointed out that Qatar’s Shariah courts still maintain the power to sentence men to the death penalty for engaging in same-sex intimacy—though there is no record of them doing so in practice.

This raises the question: Is it fair and just that a government can flagrantly violate international human rights law and still be rewarded with the economic boost and international prestige that hosting a World Cup can offer? Is this the message that we want to send the world’s young people about their supposedly inviolable human rights? And is this not a slap in the face to the young changemakers who spent years fighting for gender equality and LGBTQ human rights? These questions are particularly pertinent in the face of long-standing allegations that Qatar only won its bid to host the World Cup by bribing FIFA officials.

However, others argue that preventing countries like Qatar from hosting international events, or boycotting these events, would actually hinder human rights advocacy work, while also instilling a culture of intolerance among younger generations.

Among many others, long time Bayern Football Club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has defended that first point, arguing against boycotting the World Cup by saying that we “achieve much more in a dialogue than in a permanently critical stance.” Indeed, history proves that international integration can have a significant positive impact on a country’s behavior.

The second point has actually been raised, in a way, by Russian President Vladimir Putin. During a televised meeting on Mar. 25, Putin accused “the West” of “trying to cancel a whole 1,000 year culture,” after news that several performances and exhibitions involving Russian artists have been canceled in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine. To Putin and others that agree with him, “canceling” countries like Russia or Qatar looks like a new strategy the West is using to perpetuate its cultural dominance, especially in the face of economically powerful states.

All this brings up another series of questions: How would “canceling” Qatar affect young football fans’ perceptions of international cooperation and the world around them? Is it really useful, in an increasingly multipolar world, for yet another generation to grow up believing that it’s “the western way or the highway”?

Regardless of which side you agree with, the reality is that this debate will not simply fade away after the 2022 World Cup. Russia, for instance, has expressed interest in hosting the 2028 UEFA European Football Championshipdespite facing almost universal international sporting bans after its invasion of Ukraine.

Whether in sports, arts or business, the question of who has the right to host, ban or boycott international events is one that will plague us for years to come. But we owe it to the world’s young people to get this right, and soon.

Aishwarya Machani is a UN Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She led a consultative process bringing together hundreds of young people from around the world to contribute to the UN secretary-general’s “Our Common Agenda” report. She also co-authored”Our Future Agenda,” an accompanying vision and plan for next and future generations. She recently graduated from the University of Cambridge. Her weekly WPR column appears every Tuesday.

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