Qatar World Cup: armbands, UN visits and the FIFA middleman

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, Argentina captain Lionel Messi and Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani seen during the trophy ceremony for the 2022 FIFA World Cup final football match between Argentina and France, 18 December 2022. (Keystone/TASS/Sergei Bobylev)

Right till the end, FIFA president Gianni Infantino kept plugging the line to journalists that the football championship in Qatar was the “best World Cup ever”. But amid the breathtaking games and drama on the field, controversies regarding the bidding process and human rights issues that may have been shoved aside in full view of UN agencies such as WHO and ILO, left clouds hanging over the pitch.

Soon after Lionel Messi drove his Argentinian team to victory on Sunday, World Health Organization’s (WHO) director of climate change and health, Maria Neira, tweeted a photo of the team captain wearing a FIFA-approved WHO armband to promote health during the quadrennial sporting event. A follower soon remarked that the defeated team, France, had also been wearing the bands.

While the bands did not protect France, as well as many others, from a flu-like illness ahead of their critical matches, the controversy surrounding use of armbands evaded the WHO official’s tweet. At the start of the World Cup, eight national teams had planned to wear rainbow-coloured armbands in support of LGBTQI+ rights, which the host Qatar does not recognise, during the tournament. But that was before FIFA said players would be yellow-carded if they wore them. Spectators wearing the bands on arrival at the matches were removed from the stadiums.

In recent years, Qatar has benefited from close relations with UN agencies in Geneva amid the criticisms in particular of migrant worker rights, and reports that at least 6,000 of them have died in the construction of the World Cup infrastructure. The emirate denies the magnitude of the issue, saying only three workers died. Mounting global pressure led to Qatar announcing reforms of its kafala system, by which employers have widespread control over their staff.

While Human Rights Watch has said that many employers still do not respect minimum wages and the right of workers to change jobs and leave the emirate, as announced in the reforms, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has largely commended Qatar’s progress implementing the changes.

May Tunon, head of ILO’s office in the emirate, told Geneva Solutions in an email, “We see a high degree of compliance with the minimum wage law. However there is universal recognition that there are gaps in terms of the effective implementation of labour reforms.”

ILO’s Qatari office was opened in 2017, following $25 million worth of support from the emirate.

Just days before the final World Cup match, news of a memorandum of understanding between the ILO and FIFA was announced in Doha, allowing the UN agency to assess working conditions in countries bidding to host the World Cup.

Asked about the MoU, Tunon said, “Negotiations on the content of the MoU are ongoing. Any MoU would contribute to the advancement of ILO’s decent work agenda to promote social justice.”

Central to many of the recent agreements with UN agencies that Qatar has benefited from has been FIFA’s Infantino, who became a resident of Doha in 2021. In recent years, he travelled to Geneva a number of times to network and consolidate agreements, such as with the WHO and Qatar on promoting health at the World Cup.

In September, the Swiss-Italian FIFA boss met with the Argentinian president of the Human Rights Council, Federico Villegas, to discuss how football can advance human rights, according to FIFA’s website.

UN human rights visits on hold

Meanwhile, since the World Cup bid was attributed to Qatar in 2010, requests by eight different UN special rapporteurs to inspect the human rights situation in the country have been repeatedly gone unanswered or postponed. These included special rapporteurs on migrants, slavery, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and housing.

Lucy McKernan, acting director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch in Geneva said that states try to avoid visits by UN experts saying that they couldn’t agree on a date.  Many postponements and reminders for visits to Qatar had been reported in 2022, including the critical issue of business and human rights, where McKernan pointed to the involvement of businesses in the construction and running of the World Cup.

“It would have been a key mandate to visit,” said the expert, given the focus on migrant workers in Qatar. “It is a shame that it appears that Qatar is trying to avoid scrutiny here.”

Liz Throssel, spokesperson at the UN human rights office, wrote to Geneva Solutions: “We will continue to encourage the state of Qatar and FIFA to focus their efforts on being in full compliance with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Guiding Principles recall the state’s obligation to protect against human rights abuses by business, which requires taking appropriate steps to prevent, investigate, punish and redress human rights abuses involving business.”

Geneva Solutions did not receive replies from the offices of the special rapporteurs at the time of publication.

In March, experts working with the UN human rights office recommended an extensive list of legislative changes for Qatar, including prohibiting torture and capital punishment, migrant workers’ abuses, equal access to civic and political rights by all citizens and that anti-discrimination laws for women and girls be adopted.

The recommendations were part of Qatar’s first ever review of its legal compliance to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, considered the international bill of human rights.

But unlike other countries being reviewed at the UN human rights session, Patrick Mutzenber, director of the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, said very few NGOs from Qatar had provided information for the report, which also recommended legislation be adopted to enable civil society groups to operate.

“That tells a lot about civil society, which is practically nonexistent,” he told Geneva Solutions. Only three local NGOs were part of the process, compared to nine for Cambodia and Bolivia, and 30 for Israel, which also came up for review in March.