FIFA, Russia and Human Rights

By: Saranya Mishra


Fédération Internationale de Football Association (hereinafter ‘FIFA’) was established in 1904, under Swiss law,[1] as a body to oversee the competitions of “the beautiful game”,[2] football, among the national associations (member countries) of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Today it has 211 associations,[3] which almost makes it the “United Nations of Football”[4]. FIFA World Cup like other sport events of this magnitude (Olympics or Winter Olympics, for instance), garners viewers from all around the world, which induces a desire to put the best foot forward, and to be at the best display of glory and power in the host country, the most manifest indicator of it being infrastructure. This desire and greed tend to result in Human Rights violations of the innocent, the indigent and the migrants.


FIFA, amidst institutional controversies and financial mismanagement in 2015, had a sudden sensitisation to Human Rights (hereinafter HR), probably as a ‘make good reputation’ effort. Following is the brief timeline of how FIFA endeavoured to accommodate Human Rights-

In December 2015, FIFA commissioned an independent Human Rights audit led by Professor John Ruggie, Harvard Kennedy School (author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and HR, endorsed by the United Nations in June 2011) to develop recommendations on embedding respect for Human Rights across its global operations[5].

In February 2016, it revised the FIFA Statutes to include the following statement: “FIFA is committed to respecting all internationally recognised Human Rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.”[6]

In April 2016, FIFA published Professor Ruggie’s 25-point recommendation report, “For the Game, For the World: FIFA and Human Rights”. It accommodates the United Nations Guiding Principles and discusses ‘Associated Sources of Human Rights Risks’[7] inter alia,

  1. Risks associated with the Bidding and Selection Process, given concerns of vote buying and lack of emphasis in the Host Country bid and selection criteria on the strategy to address HR risks; and
  2. Likelihood of HR violations by virtue of Land Acquisitions for creating the lavish infrastructure (stadiums, training sites, accommodations for teams and tourist spectators) and Construction given the pressure to meet the short deadlines, which leads to workmen exploitation and creates unhealthy and unsafe working conditions.

In September 2016, FIFA established an eight-member, independent HR Advisory Board to inter alia advice on HR implementation. It submitted its first report in September 2017, which contains recommendations based on discussion and observations along the lines delineated in United Nations Guiding Principles and Professor Ruggie’s 2016 recommendations.

In October 2016, FIFA published “FIFA 2.0: The Vision for the Future[8]”, in which it intended to “champion” Human Rights as a way of building a stronger institution, which includes association with relevant authorities in the host nations, NGOs and other stakeholders.

In May 2017, it released the 13-point HR Policy[9], which was guided by the United Nations Guiding Principles and recognised the values of the International Bill of Human Rights and the International Labour Organisation. Point 5 of this policy is extremely significant, as an indicator of commitment to specific issues of Labour Rights, land acquisition and housing rights, discrimination, security and players’ rights. It has also deduced a four-pillar approach, i.e., to commit and embed, to identify and address, to protect and remedy, and lastly, to engage and communicate.

In May 2018, FIFA also launched a complaints mechanism for Human Rights defenders and media representatives, who consider their rights to have been violated while performing work, related to FIFA’s activities[10]. In June 2018, it also came together with the International Labour Organisation and the International Olympic Committee, to launch the Centre for Sports and Human Rights at the initiative of the Institute for Human Rights and Business[11].

While the Russian World Cup, 2018 is water under the bridge, Qatar 2022 is yet to come[12], even though the majority world remains dismal about the fact. There are hopes from the FIFA World Cup, 2026 for upholding Human Rights, since the bid itself mandated Human Rights Risk assessment and required the winning bidder (United 2026, a coalition of USA, Canada and Mexico) to implement Human Rights standards to prevent digital & labour rights abuses[13].


Russia has, in the recent past, captured a prominent place regarding hosting Mega Sports events, given the XXVII Summer Universiade in Kazan 2013, the XXII Winter Olympics and the XI Winter Paralympics in Sochi, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship 2016, the recent 21st FIFA World Cup in 2018 and the upcoming XXIX World Winter Universiade 2019 in Krasnoyarsk. Many international analysts are of the view that Russia has used this global platform as rhetoric to “boost its global image and mask its Human Rights record”[14]. The article limits itself to the FIFA World Cup.

In December 2010, Russia won the bid to host its first World Cup in 2018 (in 11 cities, 12 stadiums). It became a causa celebre, majorly because of England’s unsuccessful bid and allegations of corruption and vote-buying, which persisted for long, given the non-disclosure of the internal investigation, Garcia Report by Hans-Joachim Eckert, FIFA’s head of adjudication on ethical matters. There were also accusations of racism and homophobia, the most alluding instance being the detention of gay men in Chechnya in 2017[15] and the pre-trial detention of Oyub Titiev[16]. In the aftermath of the illegal Crimea annexation in 2014, apart from the travel sanction by European Union and the seats of wider economic and trade sanction by America and the UK, there was outrage of politicians all round the world, urging FIFA to rethink Russia as the host nation, which was rejected by the then General Secretary of FIFA, Sepp Blatter.

Given this background, Russia seems to have prepared to host the games, with a past tainted with corruption, bribery, intolerance and arbitrariness. Further, the World Cup preparations, not only witnessed internal scandals, but also suspension of vital laws and enactment of laws by the Russian Duma[17], which provided wide discretion to the stakeholders to set working conditions outside the framework of the Russian law. All of this cumulated in gross violations of Human Rights.

The HR violations were in the nature of, inter alia:

  1. evictions legalised by presidential decree, thereby denying compensation;
  2. racism and homophobia, not only against the players[18] but also fans[19];
  • restrained and convoluted freedom of speech and expression[20];
  1. enforced disappearances[21];
  2. labour abuse, in terms of non-compliance with minimum wages, non-payment of wage, despite protest, occupational health and safety, inhabitable and crammed accommodation[22] (The number of reported deaths is 21, with a total of 8 reported in St-Petersburg[23]); and
  3. forcibly employing migrants (including the North Koreans), akin to the prisoner of war[24] and slaves[25].


While FIFA as a governing and organising body, is replete with power and authority, it has not made efforts in the same proportion. It protected and ensured press freedom[26] (even if driven by commercial reasons), while it failed to act on LGBT rights, which could also have had commercial inflow in terms of community fans becoming spectators in the stadium.

As regards labour exploitation, FIFA proclaims to have instituted a program with Russia to monitor labour conditions on World Cup stadium sites, for ensuring a responsible World Cup. However, despite the said efforts, Human Rights Watch has reported the confinement of workers in dormitories, when they made an effort to meet the FIFA delegation to raise their concerns about wage delays[27]. It has also documented the six stadiums, and the wage irregularities, severely cold working conditions (at -25 degrees Celsius) without adequate protection and lack of contracts for legal employment in their report, titled “Red Card: Exploitation of Construction Workers on World Cup Sites in Russia”.

Conclusively, there is still hope for Qatar 2022, and the United 2026.

[1] Specifically, FIFA is registered in the Commercial Register in accordance with article 60ff. of the Swiss Civil Code.

[2] A phrase popularised by the legendary Pele as almost synonymous with football (soccer for the US).

[3] More than the United Nations, which has 193 member states.

[4] ‘Associations’ (FIFA) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[5] John G Ruggie, “For the Game. For the World.” FIFA and Human Rights (CRI Report No. 68, 2016) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[6] FIFA Statutes 2016, art 3.

[7] John G Ruggie, “For the Game. For the World.” FIFA and Human Rights (CRI Report No. 68, 2016) ch 4 <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[8] FIFA, FIFA 2.0: The Vision for The Future (FIFA 2016) <; accessed 20 July 2018.

[9] FIFA, FIFA’s Human Rights Policy (May edn, FIFA 2017) <; accessed 20 July 2018.

[10] FIFA, ‘FIFA launches complaints mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists’ (, 29 May 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[11] International Labour Organization, ‘Centre for Sport and Human Rights launched by FIFA, Olympic Committee and others’ (Devdiscourse, 27 June 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[12] Amnesty International, The ugly side of the beautiful game: Labour exploitation on a Qatar World Cup venue (MDE 22/3548/2016).

[13] Peter Micek, ‘Commentary: FIFA & 2026 World Cup winning bidder need to implement human rights standards to prevent digital & labour rights abuses’ (Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 16 May 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[14] Michał Romanowski, ‘How Russia has used sports to boost its global image and mask its human rights record’ (, 13 June 2018) <; accessed 20 July 2018.

[15] UN experts, ‘2030 Development Goals: “No one should be left behind, and no human right ignored”’ (UNHR Office of the High Commissioner, 12 July 2016) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[16] Frontline Defenders, ‘Oyub Titiev Detained And Facing Criminal Investigation’ (Frontline Defenders) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[17] ‘New “FIFA” Laws Strip World Cup Workers’ Rights in Russia’ (ITUC CSI IGB, 09 October 2013) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[18] Sam Borden, ‘Will the World Cup in Russia be overshadowed by racism, hooligans and politics’ (ESPN FC, 12 June 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[19] The Associated Press, ‘FIFA charges World Cup host Russia with fan racism’ (CBC SPORTS, 17 April 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[20] ‘Russia: Shrinking Space for Free Expression’ (Human Rights Watch, 12 January 2017) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[21] Letter from Football Supporters Europe, Human Rights Watch and ors to Gianni Infantino (20 April 2017) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[22] ‘Russia/FIFA: Workers Exploited on World Cup 2018 Stadiums’ (Human Rights Watch, 14 June 2017) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[23] Building and Wood Workers’ International, FOUL PLAY: FIFA’s failures at the 2018 World Cup Russia (2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[24] Alec Luhn, ‘’Like prisoners of war’: North Korean labour behind Russia 2018 World Cup’ (The Guardian, 04 June 2017) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[25] Håvard Melnæs, ‘The Slaves of St Petersburg’(Josimar) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[26] Minky Worden, ‘Russia Press Freedom Reversal Shows FIFA Has Leverage and Should Use It’ (Human Rights Watch, 16 May 2018) <> accessed 20 July 2018.

[27] ibid (n 24).

(Saranya is currently a student at ILS Law College, Pune.)

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