header artikel Daniela Heerdt

The Link of Sport & Human Rights

Expert op SportsLink – Dr. Daniela Heerdt

In the past couple of decades, the world of sport has increasingly been under pressure for its negative impacts on people and society. We all know that sport can be a force for good, in many ways, but unfortunately the reality is that sport in many cases has led to harms and abuses of not only its participants, athletes and players, but also outsiders.

Reports of athletes including child athletes being abused have been piling up in the past couple of years, in relation to many different sports, in many parts of the world. At the same time, mega-sporting events like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic and Paralympic Games have been and are taking place in countries that have a weaker protection of human rights, and where structural human rights issues are well document.

The world of sports is not immune to this pressure, and has started to make changes to live up to the expectations of its participants, its followers, and others that are affected in many different ways by sports and sports’ events. FIFA, as the international federation for football, has started a human rights journey a few years back, which came with significant changes that also inspired other sport organizations, even national football associations, to think about human rights within their policies and practices and make changes. The International Olympic Committee is planning to release its human rights strategy in just a few months, and Commonwealth Sport has already addressed human rights challenges and introduced changes years back in the context of its Commonwealth Games.


Most crucial

Still, many sports bodies are not picking up on this evolving sport and human rights movement, for many reasons. One and arguably the most crucial is that they often simply don’t know what to do and where to start. This is on the one hand comprehensible, as addressing human rights issues is certainly not an easy task. But there are tools and guidelines out there that provide a good framework for sport bodies to get the ball rolling regarding their human rights responsibilities. The steps that should be taken are

  1. a commitment to respect human rights,
  2. an assessment of what human rights risks are connected to the sport and organization,
  3. acting on those risks, in terms of ceasing to cause or contribute to them or preventing them,
  4. tracking the effect of the actions taken,
  5. and being transparent about these steps.


Key in all this is to engage those that are affected and give them a platform and voice to be heard. But sports bodies have to do more than just listen, they have to make sure that what those that have been or can be negatively impacted by sports have to say, will be considered when shaping policies and practices. Stakeholder engagement is another tool through which the world of sport can ensure to respect human rights and prevent harms and abuses.


Human rights policies

It is also important to acknowledge that there is much that sports bodies can learn from each other, and from other actors involved in sports, but also outside of sports. The business sector more generally has been learning how to effectively address their human rights impacts for years and many parallels can be drawn to the world of sports. Many corporates who are involved in sports as sponsors have already adopted human rights policies, including procedures on how to address human rights harms. Sharing lessons and knowledge is therefore key in tackling the negative impacts of sports and highlighting the positive ones.

There is no doubt that sport and human rights are linked, and that sport has a responsibility to respect human rights and do better than it currently does. Athletes themselves increasingly highlight that link, through protest and activism around sport events, but also through their actions on social media. This is their right, and it should be encouraged, as their influence is high, on sports bodies, but also on sports’ followers.


Responsible sport

There is also no doubt that the sport and human rights movement is evolving, and taking up speed. If we want to make this movement sustainable, to ensure that future generations in the world of sports, its participants, its officials, its regulators, are aware of what responsible sport means, and what sports’ responsibility to respect human rights entails, we have to start building knowledge and capacity of those that run sports, and those that are affected by it.


Latest research

One concrete opportunity to do so is by joining the first ever summer programme on ‘The governance of sport and human rights’ for professionals, organized by the Asser Institute in The Hague, in collaboration with the Centre for Sport and Human Rights and FIFPro. The week-long course will focus on human rights challenges in day-to-day sports, and in relation to mega-sporting events, and cover topics like athletes’ rights, athlete activism, the sports ecosystem, or access to remedy.

The participants will be exposed to the latest research and first-hand knowledge from practitioners from the field, including representatives from FIFA, the KNVB, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the World Players Association, and Caster Semenya’s legal team to mention just a few. Check out the program here and do not hesitate to reach out to me if you have questions (d.heerdt@asser.nl).

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