At the end of the year, history will be made. The world will roar as the 21 world cup starts in Qatar. It is the first time a middle eastern country earns the right to host the world’s most prestigious tournament, a moment which symbolizes the rise in status of the region with an estimation of 5 billion expected viewers, a feat which ought to be celebrated. The controversy lies in what each one of us is celebrating? The kickstart of the beautiful game? The rise in middle-eastern status as Qatar is the first regional country to host the prestigious tournament?
Ill-treatment of workers in preparation for the world cup has been recurring. As per Human Rights Watch: 95% of Qatar’s workforce are immigrants. Individuals who have left their home country in hope of attaining a better life for themselves and their families, only to be met with work permit entry fees, delayed wages, and working conditions that no human being should be subject to. The denial of basic human rights eventually leads to a loss of livelihood for the family at home, further fueling a spiral of debt and poverty and in the worst-case scenario: death. According to The Guardian, 6500 immigrants from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India have died. As per Qatari labor law, compensation is only to be paid when caused as a direct consequence of work which is a narrow and vague definition that can result in companies avoiding accountability. The former can be exemplified as only 7% of those who have died in relation to, or in close proximity to the world cup have had their family compensated.
How has the Qatari regime responded? There have been positive developments as Qatar stepped up its efforts to improve its country’s human rights reputation before the World Cup. On May 21st, 2018, Qatar submitted documents to the United Nations to join two core human rights treaties in relation to the acute situation: the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights. In any other case, this would be a massive development for any state, even more so for a state with domestic laws far out of line with the international legal framework and Human Rights obligations. However, the Qatari regime has entered ‘reservations’ which means that Qatar can accept a multilateral treaty as a whole without having to apply certain provisions with which it does not want to comply with that in turn limits the scope of its commitments. The reservations relevant to the topic in hand are Art. 8 of ICESCR.
The reservation of art 8 means that the state of Qatar restricts the scope of rights protected under that ICESCR provision. This statement reads as follows: “The State of Qatar shall interpret that what is meant by “trade unions” and their related issues stated in Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Right[s], is in line with the provisions of the Labor Law and national legislation. The State of Qatar reserves the right to implement that article in accordance with such understanding.”
This statement is of relevance given that it further legitimizes article 116 of Qatar’s Labor Law allowing only Qatari nationals the right to form workers’ associations or trade unions. As a result, migrant workers, who make up over 90 percent of the workforce, cannot exercise their rights to freedom of association and to form trade unions. One can therefore conclude international legal development has occurred, however, its application does little to remedy the situation which is worse than anyone could have imagined.
All of this could have been avoided if the governing body of football, FIFA, would have done more. A retrospective quick fix for coming tournaments can be that FIFA should provide guidelines in line with international law and norms for countries who want to apply to host the world cup so that the international legal framework can hold a state accountable when depriving its citizens of their human rights.
I am a football fan as much as the next person but at some point, one needs to draw the line. On the one hand: boycotting the tournament would set a precedence that symbolically discourages profit-based exploitation but on the other hand, that would entail that the thousands of immigrants who have sacrificed their lives will have died for nothing. No matter how beautiful the game is, and how much it does for the development of society, it cannot come at the cost of marginalized people’s lives. Before cheering on your favorite player to score or your favorite team to win, remember the suffering that has been allowed with each red card, each goal, and each kick of the ball which symbolizes the limitation that what has happened is not as bad as it seems. Are you cheering in celebration or cheering in agony?