All Eyes on Qatar: The Ethical Dilemma of Holding International Events in Countries with Poor Human Rights Records

A protester invaded the pitch during the Portugal-Uruguay game, carrying a rainbow flag and wearing a shirt that had two messages; “Save Ukraine” and “Respect for Iranian Women.

Image Source: The Herald Sun

Two weeks ago, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar kicked off — a decision that has drawn immense criticism since the Middle Eastern country was announced as the host nation in 2014. Aside from the accusations of bribing the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to gain the hosting of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar’s poor record on human rights has been on full display to the rest of the world. 

Qatar has not only come under fire for their treatment of migrant workers, many of whom were worked to the point of exhaustion and death, but their discriminatory policies regarding women and LGBTQ+ rights. Qatari women are under strict guardianship of their closest male relatives. While it is legal for them to go to school and work, that can only happen with the permission of their guardian. It is also incredibly difficult for women to initiate divorces. Even if  a woman were to obtain permission to divorce, legal guardianship over children will be given to the husband no matter the circumstances. Moreover, Qataris who identify as LGBTQ+ are not allowed to show any public displays of affection. If they are caught violating the strict “sodomy” laws in the country, men can face up to seven years in prison

Qatar is not the first country with a spotty human rights record to host an international sporting event of this magnitude. Russia hosted the 2018 World Cup and the 2014 Olympic games, and China hosted the 2022 Olympic Games. Both countries have their own struggles with human rights issues, including censorship of speech and alleged assassinations of anti-government dissidents. However, Qatar is the first country in recent history where an event of this type has been held that specifically outlaws LGBTQ+ partnerships and subjugates women to men.

With all eyes on Qatar, there are larger questions to be considered. Is it ethical to hold international sporting events in countries with poor human rights records? Are we legitimizing their behavior? How is this affecting the people who live in these countries, before and after the event is over? 

The ethics of these events are shaky at best. To many, there is no sport that is worth the compromise of a moral premise. Some argue that these events put pressure on these countries to bow to international will, but in China, Russia, and Qatar, that has not been the case. The European Journalist Training Association even went in-depth to fact check this claim, and found that in no circumstance were a country’s rights expanded following a large international event being held there.

After the passage of the June 2013 anti-LGBTQ+ bill in Russia (the law criminalized the promotion of “nontraditional” relationships to minors), the International Olympic Committee sought to institute rules that would ensure host countries abide by strict human rights standards. However, these rules have little to no enforcement mechanism, and did not deter the IOC from awarding the 2022 Winter Olympics to China in 2015. China did not change their process, and continued to arrest journalists, women’s rights activists, and lawyers, as well as reducing freedoms in Hong Kong and slaughtering the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims. Despite that, the 2022 Winter Olympics continued in Beijing with no condemnation from the IOC. The pressure argument has not worked, so why should we continue to believe that it could? 

When the World Cup is over, it’s likely that the widespread backlash for Qatar’s human rights record will fade into obscurity, much like 2008’s Summer Olympics in Beijing. Soon after another new cycle will take its place, despite how juvenile or unimportant the new news could be, relatively speaking. However, for the people in these countries, their lives are deeply affected. Without the cameras, there is no more pressure to keep up with progress that was made before the event

Qatari citizens fear that all the progress Qatar made leading up to the World Cup will dissipate once the prying eyes of the West have turned away. Reuters spoke to an LGBTQ+ man who, under the condition of anonymity, stated “What about us, who have lived in Doha for years and made Doha queer? What happens when the World Cup is over? Does the focus on the rights stop?” If we have used sport as a way to legitimize a country’s beliefs, then how can you leave and condemn them one month later? In Russia, the backlash to their 2013 law caused them to double-down on their law, not wanting to appear to bend to the West. 

There is a possibility that FIFA and the IOC have learned that lesson, with all upcoming sporting events being held in countries that don’t have such dismal records on human rights. There are real people who live in these countries, and a dangerous game is being played with their lives. Qatar is not the first country where we have overlooked human rights in favor of the game, but it most definitely should be the last.

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