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Unbookable Offences: The Ugly Truth About Qatar's 2022 World Cup

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 below.

By Hannah Shattock

In March this year the German, Dutch and Norwegian national football teams staged on-pitch protests to call out Qatar’s poor human rights record. Emblazoned across their shirts were the slogans “Football supports change”, “HUMAN RIGHTS – On and off the pitch”, and simply “HUMAN RIGHTS”. For those of us who even vaguely follow football it reminded us of what we already knew – that the Qatar World Cup 2022 has had its fair share of controversies.

In fact, ‘controversy’ is perhaps a kind choice of words. Qatar was awarded the FIFA World Cup in December 2010 despite its lack of football history, extreme climate, laws against homosexuality and alcohol consumption, and amidst claims of corruption in the selection process. Their bid relied on the argument that a Qatari World Cup would bridge the gap between the Arab world and the West. However, in the decade between its selection and its impending commencement, claims of serious violations of workers’ rights have been repeatedly waged. With this in mind, the spotlight falls on FIFA – should they have known? Are they responsible? Did they even abet the situation?

This article will explore the multi-faceted dimensions of this controversy. To begin with, I will explain how a system of labour in one of the richest countries in the world (fourth highest GDP) exploits the desperation of migrant workers for its own benefit. Secondly, I will examine the extent of FIFA, Switzerland (FIFA’s home state), and Qatar’s culpability – Should FIFA totally exclude countries from the selection process who have poor human rights records? Are FIFA and Switzerland accountable for Qatar’s national labour laws? And if these answers are not absolute, where can we place responsibility between the different actors involved?

Human Rights Violations and the Qatar World Cup 2022

The notorious “Kafala” system of labour is the root of many of the human rights violations involved in the construction of the World Cup stadiums in Qatar. Qatar is one of the richest countries in the world, but it relies heavily on foreign labour to grow its economy. In fact, migrant workers compose 86% of the population and 94% of the workforce.[1]

The Kafala system operates across the Gulf region by recruiting workers from the world’s poorest nations – Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan predominantly. All workers are required to have an in-country sponsor who gives them permission to work in the country. When they arrive (often debt-ridden from the recruitment fee) they hand over their passports to their employers who now have total control over whether they are able to change jobs, leave the country, access healthcare or venture beyond the camp (as being stopped without identification in Qatar can lead to fines or even imprisonment). Additionally, unionisation is greatly restricted in Qatar, so there is little to no freedom of association. This massive power imbalance results in many people stuck in a cycle of abuse.

Whilst Qatar has made a general promise to end the sponsorship system, poor implementation of reforms has, according to human rights organisations, resulted in little practical change to the day-to-day realities of migrant workers.[2] Even if the changes to the labour laws announced in August 2020 were to be effectively implemented it would appear to be too little too late, with the Guardian revealing in February 2021 that since the World Cup was awarded, 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar, many, they suggest, whilst working for neglectful and abusive construction companies.[3] The resulting picture is thus much closer to modern-day slavery and human trafficking than it is to FIFA’s claim to be “For the Game. For the World.”

It is clear at this stage that there are, (at the very least), serious doubts about Qatar’s compliance with its human rights obligations. However, in order to allocate any blame to FIFA, (and by extension, to Switzerland), a linkage must be made between FIFA’s conduct and the violations that have occurred in Qatar.

FIFA: The Key Player or just the Benchwarmer?

In 2017 a lawsuit was filed against FIFA to the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich that attempted to do just that.[4] The plaintiffs attested that FIFA should be held responsible for the alleged human rights violations in connection with the World Cup in Qatar. Their argument rested on the so-called endangerment principle with respect to Swiss tort law, with FIFA’s responsibility emanating from the primary decision to award Qatar the World Cup without simultaneously demanding it reform or abolish the Kafala system.

The Plaintiffs demonstrated that FIFA had frequently made such negotiations with host countries in the past. For instance, the Organising Association Agreement between FIFA and the South African Football Association for the 2010 cup involved a number of requirements concerning infrastructure, security, broadcasting rights and intellectual property rights.[5] Despite human rights being notably absent from these amendments, Yugoslavia during wartime and South Africa during apartheid were previously excluded from selection due to their poor human rights record. These earlier precedents were used to establish that FIFA had been able and willing to take such action against host countries in the past.

This 2017 lawsuit relied on “soft” law provisions enshrined in the UN’s ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, which outlines the corporate responsibility to protect human rights.[6] The Court ultimately dismissed the case because of the technical fact that it was not a commercial dispute and because the claim was not specific enough. Nonetheless, FIFA did announce that starting from the 2026 tournament, bidding regulations would incorporate human rights criteria.

The lawsuit is an interesting access point into the dilemmas of this situation. It is clear that FIFA could have used their leverage to mitigate and prevent human rights abuses caused due to their event in Qatar, however holding them legally accountable to this fact proves difficult. Switzerland also, as FIFA’s home state, has a responsibility under the ICCPR and ICESCR to protect, investigate, and punish human rights abuses committed by its private entities abroad.[7] However, the victims (in this lawsuit, Mr. Nadim Shariful Alam) are often not direct employees of FIFA and thus the case could not be brought before a Swiss Labour Tribunal. In sum, the Swiss Courts are shown to lack the jurisdiction to decide on any claims by migrant workers from the Qatari World Cup sites (whilst the lack of regional human rights courts in Asia deem international channels untenable too).

The situation therefore neatly embodies a “governance gap”, in which multiple actors – international, national and corporate – are unwilling or unable to protect human rights, and subsequently all refuse responsibility.

Conclusion: A Problem Shared is a Problem Still

Ultimately, it has been shown that FIFA has no direct human rights obligations under international law. However, as an event that rakes in billion-dollar profits, is watched by over half the world’s population (3.572 billion viewers in 2018),[8] and claims to “build a better future for all through football”, they should be held morally responsible, (as should Qatar).

The case therefore raises questions about the power of transnational corporations to interfere with state sovereignty and the exasperatingly difficult task of holding private entities accountable for their human damages.[9] At a real level though, getting justice for the victims appears unlikely, with shared responsibility apparently quickly disintegrating into no responsibility at all.

The attention drawn by NGO groups and the on-pitch training tops thus may end up being the most significant action taken. However, if, whilst the world’s eyes are turned on the shiny Qatari stadiums next year, this noise manages not to be drowned out altogether, perhaps Qatar could serve as an example to build better human rights enforcement mechanisms and more viable labour migration policies.


Image: Design by Colin Foo, photographed by Sam Tarling in ‘Qatar: FIFA must act on labour abuses as World Cup qualifiers kick off’ (Amnesty International, 22 March 2021) <> accessed 8 June 2021

[1] Dovelyn Rannveig Agunias, ‘Qatar’s Treatment of Migrant Workers Is Under the Spotlight Ahead of 2022 FIFA World Cup’ (Migration Policy Institute, 10 December 2013) <> accessed 9 June 2021 [2] ‘Migrant Workers Rights with Two Years to the Qatar 2022 World Cup: Reality Check’ (Amnesty International, 2020) <> accessed 8 June 2021 [3] ‘Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded’ The Guardian (23 February 2021) <> accessed 7 June 2021 [4] Ruling of the Commercial Court of the Canton of Zurich (2017) HG160261-O [5] Tomas Grell, ‘FIFA’s Responsibility for Human Rights Abuses in Qatar – Part I: The Claims Against FIFA’ (The Sports Integrity Initiative, 3 March 2017) <> accessed 2 April 2021 [6] Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework (2011) HR/PUB/11/04 <> accessed 12 June 2021 [7] UN Human Rights Committee, ‘General Comment No. 31: The nature of the general legal obligation imposed on States Parties to the Covenant’ (2004) CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13 [8] ‘More than half the world watched record-breaking 2018 World Cup’ (FIFA, 21 December 2018) <> accessed 8 June 2021 [9] Raquel Regueiro Dubra, ‘Shared International Responsibility for Human Rights Violations: The 2022 World Cup in Qatar’ (Verfassungsblog, 5 July 2019) <> accessed 7 June 2021

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