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15 Feb 2015

Jordi Lesaffer, CSR Expert

FIFA elections 2015 or the ‘Mr Clean’ contest: not only corruption, but also human rights should dominate the debate

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In May, Sepp Blatter will stand for a fifth term as president of FIFA. Under Blatter's presidency there have been endless scandals of corruption, culminating in the contested assignments of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. Most of the other candidates who will challenge Mr Blatter, have put 'anti-corruption' as a top priority. A real 'Mr Clean' contest. Which is good. But other important issues, such as human rights, should not be marginalized.

It's a worrying fact that fundamental human rights, fair labour practices and the impact on the local communities that mega-events like the World Cup entail, do not seem to be given the priority they deserve in the allocation of the organization of the candidate countries. Last year, Brazil (World Cup 2014) was confronted with social protests and public discontent. Favelas were 'cleaned up', with security forces using disproportionate violence. The discontent among the Brazilian population grew because of the deficient infrastructure of schools and hospitals, while billions are being invested in new sports infrastructure. The Brazilian Labour Ministry denounced that the World Cup airport expansion was confronted with workers in 'slave-like' conditions.

Qatar, although still far away (World Cup 2022), is already facing serious allegations. While a discussion is going on if the World Cup, given the extreme heat during the summer, should not be better organized during the winter (in the interest of players and public), an investigation from 'The Guardian' highlighted several deaths & injuries of Nepalese workers, as a consequence of dehydration and heat. Inhumane working conditions, exploitation and outright 'slave labor' are part of the game in Qatar according to several NGO's, while the International Trade Union Confederation pleads for greater reforms. Meanwhile, Lusail Real Estate Development, Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee and Qatar's Labour Ministry denied the allegations. FIFA stated to be 'very concerned'. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, this was the track record of Qatar in 2013: "Freedom of expression continued to be curtailed; New cases of torture emerged; Women face discrimination in law and practice and violence; Foreign migrant workers exploited, abused and inadequately protected under the law."

But before Qatar, there is the 2018 World Cup in...Russia. Aside of the corruption (as was the case for Qatar 2022) scandal linked to its assignment, Russia's track record of human rights abuses is even more impressive. Again Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch: New laws in 2012 restrict nongovernmental organizations and freedoms of assembly and expression; New local laws discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; Abuses continue in the counterinsurgency campaign in the North Caucasus; Harassment of Kremlin Critics and Human Rights Defenders; Abuses Linked to Preparations for the 2014 Olympic Games; In May 2013, Russia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). However, the 13 million people with disabilities in Russia continue to face a range of barriers that limit their participation in society; Repression of peaceful political protest; Human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers face harassment; Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread." On the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Russia has a score of 27/100 (the index measures the perceived levels of public sector corruption from 0 highly corrupt to 100 very clean).

Whilst in the business world and within large multinational companies, 'Corporate Social Responsibility' is more and more embedded in their business strategy, world sports federations are still lagging behind and fail to adequately manage human rights related risks.

The United Nations 'Protect, Respect & Remedy' framework, the UN Global Compact, and the' OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises' all agree that companies have a responsibility in the area of human rights. Even if the human rights violations are committed by States or state related entities, companies and big organizations can and should use their power and influence to reduce these violations as much as possible and avoid to be involved directly or indirectly, in human rights violations that can be linked to their activities.

FIFA states the following on its website: "We believe that we have a duty to society that goes beyond football: to improve the lives of young people and their surrounding communities, to reduce the negative impact of our activities and to make the most we can of the positives. Football can inspire communities and break down barriers. Football is for all. FIFA believes that everybody has the right to play football free from discrimination or prejudice and we are striving to ensure that this is the case. We recognise, and work hard to limit, our impact on the environment, inspiring greater awareness and best practice in sustainability standards at all of our events." In 2014 FIFA also emitted its first 'Sustainability Report'.

These are important and positive steps. However, the recent controversies and the assignment of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar show that the 'triple bottom line (people, planet and profit) of the FIFA is not yet balanced. Social and human rights aspects seem still to be overruled by financial (or political) considerations.
The FIFA - as international and widely respected organization – has the necessary power, leverage and influence to impose their demands. For many countries being chosen to organize the World Cup is the ultimate dream and a stepping stone to international recognition and prestige.

We can wonder why the international sports world is procrastinating about the implementation of a more thorough corporate social responsibility strategy.
The integration of social and human rights considerations into the policies and governance structure of the FIFA is also in their own interest. It strengthens also the 'license to operate' of the FIFA, while it creates more stable operating environments and promotes better community relations. Conversely, the recurrent allegations of human rights disputes and corruption negatively impact the reputation and brand image of these organizations, which can lead to boycotts.

Recently, some big multinational sponsors chose not to renew their sponsorship contracts with FIFA when they expired last year. UK Conservative MP Damian Collins stated in The Daily Telegraph: "Fifa is a toxic brand. That's why companies who care about their reputation don't want to be associated with [it]... "

It's clear that the next 'Mr Clean' will have a lot of big challenges ahead. He (and why not a 'She'?) will have to show that CSR within FIFA is not only 'marketing', and needs to assure that also human rights considerations become an integral part of the core values and strategy of FIFA.