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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

‘Sportswashing’ - The Battle for Publicity Affecting Modern Day Human Rights Protection.

In the aftermath of the ‘deeply troubling’ death of the dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, another rumour involving the Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman surfaced in the British media. Initially picked up by the Daily Star, there were reports that the Saudi royal would push through a bid for a controlling stake in the world’s wealthiest football club, Manchester United. However, in the articles and online excitement generated by the thought of the club being owned by one of the world’s wealthiest men, many simply ignored the allegations about Salman’s involvement in Khashoggi’s death. Instead, the focus was placed firmly on the prince’s money and the impact this could have on the sport. Such an approach is indicative of a global trend of using sport to deflect attention from human rights violations. This is the phenomenon of ‘sportswashing’, defined by journalist Jules Boykoff as authoritarian regimes ‘using mega sports events to launder their reputations and distract from their horrific human rights records’. As a concept, sportswashing is far from new[1] but sportswashing has begun to accelerate alarmingly in frequency in recent decades. The ever-growing global appeal of sporting events and their participants, aided by the technology boom, has allowed space for oppressive dictators to use such events to legitimize illegal and immoral behaviour.

A particularly chilling example of these diversionary tactics came at last summer’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, a nation described by the Human Rights Watch as being ‘more oppressive on [human rights] than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era’.[2] Prior to the tournament, Vladimir Putin had expressed a wish to ‘underline FIFA’s commitment to the principle of sport without politics’[3] but he then proceeded to flaunt a series of authoritarian politicians as guests in his personal box. These included Bin Salman himself, Kim Jong Un’s eldest brother Kim Jong-Nam and the head of state of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, all of whom represent countries frequently condemned by human rights charities like Amnesty International. However, if the tournament was purely an attempt to distract the world from the nefarious and morally indefensible actions of Putin’s government, it was a rousing success. This opportunity to present the country before a global audience led to the creation of a separate ‘World Cup Russia’[4] – an idealized environment free from police brutality and homophobic abuse. Many were fooled by this artificial presentation of Russia and its people, despite it occurring just months after the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury. One jubilant England fan told the BBC that ‘everything the British government has said about Russia is a lie’, ironically labeling the UK’s condemnation of Putin as ‘propaganda’.[5] Even the FIFA President Gianni Infantino noted that ‘this is the new image that we have about Russia’ and referred to the fact that ‘police in Red Square are smiling’.[6] Such an assertion is a perfect example of the effect these events can have on international perception, with Infantino’s smiling policemen forming a stark contrast to the stone-faced officials that suppressed peaceful protests supporting the politician Alexei Navalny in 2017.[7]

Another politician that enjoyed hospitality from the Russian President at the tournament was Belarusian Premier Alexander Lukashenko, infamously referred to as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ by then US President George W. Bush. Elected in 1994, Lukashenko’s government has been responsible for a variety of alleged human rights violations, including the disappearance of Viktar Hanchar in 1999 and the “[torturous]”[8] treatment of death row prisoners in 2017. In spite of this, Belarus will be hosting the second edition of the ‘European Games’ in 2019, through which it can present itself in a similar manner to Putin’s Russia. While it might seeminly inappropriate for the IOC to grant Lukashenko this political opportunity, it is in reality relatively unsurprising as the first edition of the competition was held in Azerbaijan, a nation with a very poor record on protecting LGBT and political rights.

Illustrating the same issue on a smaller scale were the concurrent events in the Russian province of Chechnya during the World Cup. Chechnya, and in particular its President Ramzan Kadyrov, is regarded as an example of the very worst elements of Russian human rights abuse. A fiercely traditional area, the Human Rights Watch Association reported that in March 2018 local authorities staged ‘a large-scale anti-gay purge’,[9] collecting and torturing dozens of men for presumed homosexuality. However, just three months later, at a ceremonial occasion for the visiting Egyptian football team, Kadyrov presented the footballer Mohammed Salah with honorary citizenship in front of the global media. By inviting one of the most famous faces in global football to become a part of ‘the Republic of Chechnya’, Kadyrov sought to both legitimize himself in a global context in the aftermath of the pogrom allegations and push the concept of Chechnyan autonomy. Despite strenuously denying that his actions were at all political, the reports that the President personally escorted Salah to training during this period[10] highlight his deliberate attempts to create positive media coverage.

In light of these strategies that threaten global perception of authoritarian states and their human rights abuses, what then is the future? Is this an issue that will continue to deteriorate or has there been any indication of public pressure on international organizations to limit events given to dictatorial nations? Undoubtedly, this is a technique that will continue to be employed by under-fire states, particularly after the success Putin enjoyed in the summer. In the face of international criticism and poor relations with many Western states, Saudi Arabia has launched a proposed $25 billion bid for rights to the FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Nations League. Additionally, in the next five years Qatar is set to host the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships and the 2022 FIFA World Cup, amid allegations from Amnesty International that forced labour has been used to build the necessary infrastructure.[11] However, there are suggestions that there is an increasing public realization about the effects of these controlled media stunts. In 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced that human rights records would be a relevant factor in deciding all future hosts of the Olympics from 2024 following a prolonged period of pressure from human rights groups. This constitutes an important first step in preventing rights abuse from being swept under the rug but there is plenty more that can be achieved. By recognizing these propaganda extravaganzas for what they are, we can come together as an international community to hold offending states accountable and protect rights on a global scale.

Edward Olsen

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

5th December, 2018


[1] An early example came at the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina, as the hosts used the tournament to draw focus from prior human rights violations.

[3] Steve Rosenberg, ‘Is Russia the Real Winner of World Cup 2018?’ BBC News (Moscow, 14th July 2018), accessed 28th November 2018.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, ‘Fifa president says world cup has changed perception of Russia’ Reuters (14th July 2018), accessed 29th November 2018.

[7] ‘Russia – Events of 2017’ Human Rights Watch, accessed 30th November 2018.

[8] UNGA ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Belarus’ UNGAHRC 29th Session UN Doc A/HRC/29/43.

[9] Nataliya Vasilyeva, ‘They have long arms and they can find me’ Human Rights Watch (26th May 2017), accessed 27th November 2018.

[10] Andrew Roth, ‘Mohammed Salah “Honoured” with Gift of Citizenship’ The Guardian (Moscow, 23rd June 2018), accessed 27th November 2018.

[11] ‘Qatar: abuse of migrant workers remains widespread as World Cup stadium hosts first match’, Amnesty International (18th May 2017), accessed 30th November 2018.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes above.

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