Sports and human rights: focus on ‘sports washing’ – big names play for big money

February 1, 2019

Sports and human rights (or as some like to say ‘sports and politics‘) remains a hotly disputed topic. While the organized sport world (FIFA, IOC) is slowly coming around to take these matters more seriously [see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/03/fifas-second-report-on-human-rights-misses-sustainable-approach/  and  https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/03/olympic-committee-tries-its-hands-on-human-rights-cautiously/], it seems that less progress is made with sports events organized by repressive regimes simply to boost their image. Recently called ‘sports washing‘ [The term was coined in relation to a planned tennis exhibition match in Jeddah last December between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, – https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/10/19/novak-djokovic-and-rafael-nadal-have-a-chance-to-score-a-point-for-human-rights-defenders/. It never went ahead due to an injury of Nadal.]. Azerbaijan in 2015 tried to make good use of sporting events (see e.g.    https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/06/12/baku-games-starting-today-with-avalanche-of-human-rights-criticism/; and https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2015/04/21/azerbaijan-a-formula-for-combining-sports-and-repression/).

Now the regime of Saudi Arabia hopes that it can buy its way to a better image with hosting sport events and Amnesty International has warned sports stars not to become a propaganda tool. Saudi Arabia said it has hired the former England captain, David Beckham, to lead an exhibition team against his former Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane.  The game, to be held later this year, is part of a £60-billion re-launch of the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia, called the National Transformation Programme. According to an article in the Sun, it would earn Beckham an estimated £1million. [Beckham also has a lifetime endorsement deal worth £120million with Adidas which I think doesn’t sit well with Adidas’ claimed stance in favor of human rights – see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/13/first-time-major-companies-say-that-human-rights-defenders-are-essential-for-profitable-business/].

Announcing the match in front of big screen images of the football legends, Saudi sports minister Turki Al-Sheikh said: “This is an exhibition match including two big worldwide stars – Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham playing against each other…If God wills, you will see it this year in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The UN children’s aid group UNICEF, for whom Beckham is a goodwill ambassador, has criticised the Saudi-led coalition saying its bombing attacks there have had catastrophic consequences for the local population. Saudi Arabia has detained more than a dozen women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathloul who once appeared in a Vanity Fair.  Loujain’s sister, Alia, has criticised US singer Mariah Carey for playing a concert on Thursday at the King Abdullah Economic City. She said: “My own baby sister said she is being whipped, beaten, electrocuted and harassed on a frequent basis.” She stated: “Remember, thanks to my sister @LoujainHathloul, you r able to perform in Saudi Arabia. I wish she can attend your concert. But she’s locked behind bars because she tried to improve women’s condition. Don’t forget to thank her on stage,” she wrote to Carey on Twitter. [but Mariah Carey is an old hand when it comes to selling her soul: see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2013/12/19/mariah-carey-needs-better-informed-staff-and-donate-her-1-million-fee-to-human-rights-defenders-in-angola/].

My post yesterday was about golfershttps://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/31/amnesty-international-calls-on-golfers-not-to-play-the-saudi-propaganda-game/] who were being paid $ 1million when the European Tour staged a tournament in Saudi Arabia. While Paul Casey decided not to take part on human rights grounds, Justin Rose and Ian Poulter did play.

How difficult if not impossible it is to try and separate sports and politics can be illustrated by the recent case of soccer player, Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahrain-born soccer player for a team in Australia has been held in detention in Thailand [see https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/02/craig-foster-australian-footballer-and-human-rights-defender/].  Hannah Beech in the NYT on 31 January 2019 puts the question “Can Big Global Sports Come Around to Human Rights Advocacy?

Hakeem al-Araibi, center, a former member of Bahrain’s national soccer team who has refugee status in Australia, at court in Bangkok in December.CreditCreditAthit Perawongmetha/Reuters

The global sports market is worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Now, this powerful industry is coming together to promote an unlikely cause: human rights. Since late November, a Bahrain-born soccer player for a minor team in Australia has been held in detention in Thailand. The player, Hakeem al-Araibi, 24, is not a famous athlete. He has no lucrative sponsors. But he has spoken out against one of the most powerful men in international soccer, who is also a member of the ruling family of Bahrain. His testimony of torture at the hands of Bahrain’s repressive government earned him refugee status in Australia, which determined that he faced credible threats of persecution should he return to the Gulf state. Still, over the past week, Mr. Araibi has collected an impressive list of supporters in the world of international sports.

  • Fatma Samoura, the secretary general of FIFA, has called for Thailand to return him to Australia “as a matter of urgency.”
  • Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, raised the issue with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
  • Praful Patel, of the Asian Football Confederation, issued a statement asking the Prime Minister of Thailand to ensure Mr. Araibi’s return to his adopted home.

[By the way, the head of the Asian Football Confederation is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, the Bahraini official whom Mr. Araibi accused of not stopping the persecution of athletes in his charge. Sheikh Salman also serves as a FIFA vice president.!]

Mary Harvey, the chief executive of the Center for Sports and Human Rights, said:  “Hakeem is a historic test case, because it’s the first time that we’ve seen these big, powerful sports bodies all come together publicly to address the fate of a single person”. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/12/12/mary-harvey-her-goal-is-now-human-rights/]. The court ordered al-Araibi, who is in the Bangkok Remand Prison, to appear before it at 8.30am on Monday to answer whether or not he is willing to be extradited,  lawyer Bergman said.

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One Response to “Sports and human rights: focus on ‘sports washing’ – big names play for big money”


  1. Good stuff 

    Envoyé depuis Yahoo Mail pour Android


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