Qatar, world cup and human rights


Things have not gone all Qatar’s way in the World Cup

November 2022

Qatar has spent huge sums of money on building stadia and in attempts to promote its image around the world. It was perhaps the most expensive example of sports washing there has been. How successful is it?

Not going to plan

What is obvious is that it has not gone according to plan. Previous nation’s attempts to sanitise their image using sport have, from their point of view, been reasonably successful, one thinks of China. This has been because the sporting community: the sports people themselves, the managers and promoters, the media and many of the supporters – have cared little for the human rights of the countries where competition has taken place. So tennis, golf, boxing, cycling, horse racing, motor sport and other competitions have happily taken place in countries where torture is still practised, opposition is repressed, women have few rights and the death penalty is still a fact of life. Why let a stoning or public amputation spoil a game of tennis? No matter, the money is good and the sports pages of our media do not sully their pages with the sordid goings on outside the field of play. Sport has existed in a kind of bubble making it supremely suitable to be used by autocratic regimes to launder their image.

Qatar has been different. People have noticed and suddenly, some of the sports pages have moved away from sports reporting and are talking about arm bands, protests and footballers not singing the national anthem. The wearing of arm bands has become politically charged. There are pictures of people holding up posters particularly about women’s rights (or should we say, the absence of them). Yesterday, it was the German team covering their mouths. David Beckham who, up till now, has been able to promote himself as the honest Essex boy done good, is now seen in as a somewhat dubious light having accepted a reported £120m fee to be an ambassador for the Qataris. It is said he will not now get his knighthood. When reporters approach him for interview, he is silent. Not yet hero to zero but certainly a damaged brand.

FIFA want us to focus just on the football. Never mind the 6,500 worker deaths, the near absence of women’s rights, the silencing of opposition people and the anti LGBQI+ actions and laws. Where once football was to be the means by which nations came together and mutual understanding increased, now we are enjoined not to look outside the stadium itself. FIFA’s Infantino tells us that he understands prejudice because he has freckles and red hair which was a problem for him at school.

Sports washing may not be the same again

One positive thing may emerge from this World Cup and that is the days of sports washing may not be numbered but it will make countries and despots think twice in future. Instead of hundreds of thousands of supporters and spectators arriving to marvel at the spectacle no questions asked, some of them are asking questions. Some might even be a little uncomfortable at being there at all. The sports pages now mention the uncomfortable truths about the regime where the event is held and do not simply report on the sport as though wearing blinkers. Sport has been a willing captive, happy to take the millions and all too ready to claim ignorance of what happens outside the stadium or arena. The media has also followed the money. Perhaps those days are over and future events will bring a greater readiness to question and take account of the human rights situation in the host country.

FIFA and the World Cup


FIFA writes to all contestants urging them to ‘focus on the football’

November 2022

The decision to hold the World Cup in Qatar was always controversial and as the competition approaches, temperatures have risen concerning the state’s human rights record and treatment of the migrant workers who built the stadiums and facilities, around 6,500 of whom have reportedly died. The FIFA president Gianni Infantino has written to the 32 competing nations asking them to ‘focus on the football’. He suggests further that they need ‘to respect all opinions and beliefs without handing out moral lessons.’ The FIFA General Secretary Fatma Samoura goes further and tells us that the food is great and ‘the tea is beautiful!’ She suggests, absurdly, that Qatar can be used as a ‘role model for other countries in the Gulf’.

The essential dispute is whether sport is a useful pressure point to improve the human rights of the host nations where events take place, or whether sport is simply being used to sanitise the reputations of dire regimes, in other words, sports washing. There is an argument for sporting events going to a country where the combination of visibility, media attention and the need to ‘put on a good face’ can have a positive effect on how individuals are treated. While this may be true in principle, it was hard to find such positive examples on a search through a range of sport-based campaign organisations who promote this idea such as the Centre for Sports and Human Rights. The IOC claimed to insert requirements into their contracts but the extent to which they outlast the actual competition has to be questioned.

Qatar has a range of problems on the human rights front. They include the kafala system which ties workers to their employers. We have mentioned the claim that around 6,500 have died building the facilities. The workers are barred from forming a trade union. FIFA has claimed that reforms have been introduced but there seems little sign of them in practice and enforcement seems minimal. Wage theft is common.

Women are treated poorly. The suffer under the guardianship system which means the permission of a male member of the family is needed to marry, travel or study abroad and divorced women are not permitted to be their children’s guardian.

Same sex relations are banned and are a crime. There is no freedom of expression.

FIFA’s statements seem to be at variance to the idea of sport having some kind of ambassadorial role. If the footballers are being asked not to wear armbands, nor to ‘hand out moral lessons’ as they put it and generally keep a low profile, where then is the pressure on the Qataris going to come from? They were joined by the UK’s foreign secretary James Cleverly MP who was quoted at saying, in connection with LGBT football fans heading for the competition, that they should be ‘respectful of the host nation’. Downing Street distanced themselves from this crass comment.

Another factor is how the competition will be reported. Sports reporting lives largely in a world of its own. The narrative is around how the home country is progressing, who is the favourite to win and facile interviews with the various participants about their performances on the field past and future. Life outside the stadium and hotel rooms are unlikely to get a mention. Will any of the sports reporters visit the squalid accommodation that the men who built the stadiums live in? Will the subservient status of women be mentioned? Since freedom of expression is substantially curtailed, none of this is likely to see the light of day. The reporters might reasonably argue we are here to comment on football not on social or human rights conditions.

There seems no escape from the fact that sport is being used by repressive or abusive regimes to enhance their reputations and the sports people are only too willing to play along. It’s not just football of course: tennis; boxing; golf; motorsport; cycling and athletics have all quite happily taken the money. The notion that sporting events are a force for good and the publicity they generate helps those abused by the regimes is fanciful at best. There seems little evidence of sustained benefit deriving from these major international sporting events. Claims are made but the power of money seems to trump any moral considerations and those with the power to make a difference are only too content to look the other way.

Sources: ITV News; HRW; Amnesty; Mirror; Daily Mail; UNSW Sidney

Saudi sports washing


Open letter from Reprieve to Sebastian Vettel

October 2022

Saudi Arabia is using its vast wealth to attract a range of sports and sports competitors to its shores as part of a programme to improve its reputation. They have also poured large sums into Newcastle United football club as part of the same exercise. The money seems to work and sports such as tennis, golf, equestrianism, boxing and formula 1 racing have all eagerly taken part and accepted the Saudi millions. They have invested in US sports such as baseball and basketball. The sports people seem not to be concerned at the lack of women’s rights, the use of torture, suppression of free speech and barbaric executions which go on there. In addition, Saudi Arabia has been involved in the war in Yemen which has resulted in considerable loss of life.

Below, is a letter from Reprieve to the racing driver Sebastien Vettel asking him to speak out –

Dear Sebastian Vettel,

We wanted to tell you, as an F1 driver for Aston Martin, about the Saudi Arabian government’s human rights abuses and the fact that Saudi Arabia has just invested in the company you drive for.

The Reprieve community may not be experts on cars or racing, but we are experts in the case of Abdullah al-Howaiti – a child defendant at risk of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.  

Abdullah was arrested when he was just 14 years old and tortured “confessing” to crimes he did not commit. 

Just last year, the Saudi Arabian regime that has been allowed to invest in Aston Martin, executed child defendant Mustafa al-Darwish, who was 17 years old at the time of his so-called crime. Having a photo on his phone was amongst his alleged offences. If you speak up, you can stop Abdullah facing the same fate.  

The Saudi Arabian Government is doing what is known as sportswashing. They’re appointing tourism ambassadors such as Lionel Messi, creating the LIV golf tournament, and buying sports clubs like Newcastle FC. This is a regime trying very hard to distract people from its human rights abuses. 

We are asking you to follow Lewis Hamilton in speaking out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. You can use your platform as one of F1’s most famous drivers and representing a team part-owned by Saudi Arabia’s government to save lives.

We read that you said, “there are certain values we must stand up for because they outweigh financial interests” and “you also have responsibility and you should make sure you go ahead with the right values and symbols.” Today we’re asking you to exercise your responsibility, value Abdullah’s life, and speak out for him before you retire at the end of the year. Your voice could make the difference. 

Will you speak up for him? 

Thank you,   

The Reprieve Community   


You can sign this petition by following this link. Please help us and the Reprieve community in trying to stop Saudi using its wealth to smooth over its appalling human rights record. Thank you.

Qatar World Cup


October 2022

The World Cup, soon to start in Qatar, brings together in one place, sports washing, corruption and human rights abuses in a kind of symbolic statement of how to understand the modern world. FIFA itself is in a league all of its own in terms of corruption. It is reported that 16 of its voting members have been implicated in corruption or bad practice since Qatar was awarded the tournament. The list of enquiries investigations, legal actions and the like would take thousands of words to describe.

States like Qatar, with its enormous wealth derived from its massive reserves of natural gas, can afford to spend huge sums on supporting or sponsoring sporting events to green wash their dubious political activities. They are safe in the knowledge that simply by waving large cheques at sporting entities, they can secure these events with no sign of sportsmen or women, their managers or coaches, showing the least concern about the activities going on in those countries.

To build the stadiums has caused a large number of deaths, either from safety failures or from heat exhaustion. The labourers, recruited under the infamous kafala system, are unable to change employers, are not allowed to join a trade union, and live in appalling squalor often sleeping in shifts in the same bed. Their wages are often stolen and despite investigations and promises, there seems no end to the abuses. Various statements have been made by FIFA representatives expressing concern at the deaths and Qatar has made promises to improve their practices. It seems however, that nothing was actually done.

Women are still second-class citizens suffering under a range of gender-based restrictions. They must seek permission from a male guardian to study or travel abroad, marry, or work in some government jobs. Some hotels will not allow single women under the age of 35 to stay.

Some of the footballers have expressed concern but seemed to say there was nothing they could do, and it was all too late anyway since the stadiums were built. A boycott would serve no purpose one England team person said.

So, a tournament takes place soon, in a country where an unknown number of workers – with few rights – have died building the stadiums, where corruption on a massive scale has taken place and where women enjoy few rights. Nothing political will be said because we depend on their gas following Russia cutting off their supplies. Our sports pages will be full of the results and eager reportage of England’s progress in the tournament and will show scant attention to events beyond the pitch. A neat encapsulation of where human rights are today perhaps.

Sources used in this post: HRW; al Jazeera, Amnesty; The Guardian

Readers may also like to link to FairSquare human rights organisation, based in London, which has published reports on abusive labour practices in Qatar.

Sportswashing alive and well


The sporting world seems more concerned with money than with the the activities of the regimes who supply it

August 2022

Two sporting events took place more or less at the same time today : Newcastle United Football Club will be playing Manchester City today and Joshua Reynolds fought a boxing match in Jedda. The connection? Both events are heavily funded by the Saudis as part of its sportswashing activities. They hope by directing attention to the sporting activities, the gaze of the world will be deflected from the horrors of the regime itself: the beheadings and amputations, the use of torture and unfair trials, the brutal silencing of any opposition and the denial of equal rights to women in the kingdom.

A leader in the Observer newspaper today (21 August 2021) suggested that Newcastle United supporters should observe a minutes silence at the start of the match against Manchester City (whose own financing by UAE’s Sheikh Mansour also raised questions with its use of torture, abuse of migrant labourers and unfair trials) in recognition of the draconian 34 year sentence handed down to Salma al-Shehab for faintly ludicrous crimes of ‘disrupting public order’ and allegedly publishing ‘false rumours’. Perhaps the writer of the Observer editorial had not looked at the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and in particular, the sports pages. Had they done so they would have observed (!) that nowhere in the pages of stories about the club, its players and assorted transfers, was there any mention of the goings on by their funders in Saudi or the fate of Salma*.

A successful policy

In most of the reports about the Joshua match, the focus was on his childish sobbing because he lost narrowly to the Ukrainian. Both Newcastle and Joshua Reynolds are in receipt of substantial sums from Mohammed bin Salman. One has to admit it is a largely successful policy. As far as the sports writers and supporters are concerned, it’s the sport that matters and the nature of the dirty money seems to be of little interest to them. Pages of print are taken up with the activities on the field or in the ring and the supporters are not exposed to the unseemly activities of the regime which makes it all possible.

Sport seems almost detached from the political world despite the fact that huge amounts of money to keep the football league in place comes from a variety of dubious sources and despotic regimes. The vast sums paid in eye-watering transfers do not just come from ticket prices or from thin air. Vast amounts are also available for golf, tennis, Formula 1 and horse racing.

The word ‘sportswashing’ is relatively new but using sport to enhance a regime goes back to the interwar years at least with Mussolini and the 1934 World Cup. Post war and the communist regimes of Russia and East Germany engaged in it to enhance their own prestige but with their own sports people. Many sports are involved including tennis, golf, cycling, F1 and horse racing.

The desire for success by football clubs in particular means that money matters more than anything else. If a club cannot populate its team with the best players, acquired at great expense, it cannot succeed in the league or in other competitions. A kind of dependency grows and questions of propriety and the sordid nature or source of the money get short shrift. When the Saudi funding of Newcastle first came to light, there seemed little concern among supporters about the regime as witnessed in the below-the-line comments in the Chronicle and other social media. Success was the thing and getting rid of Mike Ashley the driving force.

There is no getting away from the fact that sport is a significant element of our culture. Millions watch it on TV, attend matches, buy the kit of their favourite club and read the sports pages. Sportsmen and women and sports commentators are among the top earners in the media universe. They appear immune from any moral opprobrium. They appear on panel shows like the BBC’s A Question of Sport. The moral chasm however is alarming. Anthony Joshua for example, when asked about human rights before a previous bout in Saudi, said he hadn’t heard of Amnesty as he was too busy training at the gym. As the sums mount and more tyrants join in the game of sanitising their reputations by using sport, the question is, will there come a time when the money is so egregious that the political class, or even the sports authorities themselves, begin to take notice? So far, somnolence and heads remaining firmly in sand seems to hold sway.

*There were references in the paper at the time of the funding takeover.

Boxing in Saudi


Mohammed bin Salman continues his sportswashing activity with a boxing fixture tomorrow in Jedda

August 2022

With its vast wealth, Saudi Arabia is pursuing its attempt to whitewash its reputation by sponsoring a boxing match today (Saturday 20th 2022) between British born Anthony Joshua and the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk in Jedda. Each will share a purse of around £33m. This is not the first time and in a previous post we pointed out the human rights problems in Saudi to which Joshua gave a less than satisfactory answer.

Readers of this site will not be unaware of the many posts we have published concerning the dire human rights situation in Saudi. Mass executions including one of the largest ever of 81 men in one day in March. The use of torture is routine, children are not exempt and Mustafa al-Darwish was executed last year. Trials are in secret and often little more than rubber stamping confessions produced following torture.

Only today 19 August 2022, there was a report of a Saudi woman given a 34 year sentence for using Twitter. A terrorist court has imposed the sentence on the Leeds University student who has a mere 2,500 or so followers.

Saudi activities in Yemen also should be mentioned with bombing of non military targets commonplace. British and US arms including aircraft are used in these missions and British personnel – including RAF personnel – are in place to ‘advise’ the Saudis.

In an effort to sanitise this reputation, MbS has embarked on a programme of sportswashing which has included golf, boxing, tennis, F1, horse racing with the worlds richest prize. Even chess is supported. Money has also come to Newcastle United football club. According to a report by Grant Liberty, a massive £1.5bn has been spent on this sportswashing. And the money works with little sign of the hundreds of sports people being the least bit concerned about the country they are competing in. The sports pages are full of their endeavours with facile interviews of the stars. Beheadings? Torture? Mass executions? Yemen? No women’s rights to speak of? None of it seems to concern our sporting heroes so long as the money is right.

Sources: Amnesty, The Guardian, Grant Liberty

Formula 1 in Saudi


Can nothing stop the F1 circus?

Despite the enormous scale of death and destruction taking in place in Yemen by Saudi Arabia, the F1 Grand Prix still took place there (Saudi).  The Saudi regime is desperately keen to use sport as a means to whitewash its appalling human rights record.  Not only is it causing misery in Yemen but it has recently executed 81 people in a single day in Saudi itself almost certainly after torture was used to extract confessions.  Executions are usually carried out by beheading. 

There was a time when sport was confined to the back pages of newspapers or at the end of news bulletins.  It was about sport itself with reports of competitions, league tables or medals won.  The use of sport to promote nations has a long history and in recent times we have seen enormous sums spent by regimes to secure medals at the Olympics.  Recently, the notion of ‘sports washing’ has become established with Saudi Arabia a prominent player.  In addition to boxing promotions, golf and Formula 1, it has poured a huge sum into Newcastle United football club

A recent edition of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CAAT, newsletter (Issue 262) provides an update on the destruction in Yemen.  In November, the UN estimated that 377,000 will have died.  This would be the total to the end of 2021.  Unfortunately, they say, ‘the escalating death toll and overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law have done little to curb the arms dealers: to them it represent a business opportunity’.  Since the bombing of Yemen began in 2015, the value of UK sales to Saudi Arabia amounts to £20 billion.  Further details and background can be found on the Mwatana site.

CAAT reports that the UN failed to renew the mandate in October for the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen following intense lobbying of council members by the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia

Human rights infringements continue in the country itself.  Critics of the government or ruling family are routinely jailed.  Prejudice against women and the LGBT community is practised.  Many people are executed in barbaric fashion after wholly unsatisfactory trials.  Reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty provide further details.

No impact on F1

None of this seems to have an impact on Formula 1.  It is interesting to note however that, following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, the F1 race due to take place in Sochi this year was quickly cancelled.  It seems truly bizarre that they were able to act with great speed following the Ukraine invasion but prolonged death, destruction and egregious human rights abuses in Yemen and Saudi has not made any impression.  Could it be the considerable publicity the war has attracted and the actions being taken against Russian oligarchs meant that any attempt by F1 to carry on as usual was simply not possible?  Whereas, what is going on in Saudi and Yemen only rarely makes it onto the front pages thus enabling them to carry on with business as usual. 

Saudi is spending billions on its campaign to improve its image and holding various sporting events and some sporting authorities seem immune to what is going on.  It seems as though the lure of money – and lots of it – is too great.  They exist, as one commentator puts it, in a vacuum.  Perhaps we should not be too surprised at F1’s flimsy approach to human rights when its former boss Bernie Ecclestone was interviewed on Times Radio defending President Putin as an ‘honourable man’. 

Sources: HRW; Amnesty; Daily Express; Guardian; al Jazeera; BBC

Saudi sportswashing: F1


Saudi Arabia accused of sportswashing with F1 race this weekend

UPDATE: 5 December

Lewis Hamilton is reported to be concerned that his car will show the Kingspan logo, the firm that supplied a small part of the panels which burned on Grenfell Tower. Hamilton has expressed support for the residents of the tower after the major fire. However, he did not appear to say anything about the Saudi regime and their egregious human rights failings which are described below. His teams presence in Saudi is contributing significantly to the regime’s greenwashing programme.


Saudi Arabia is hosting the F1 race this weekend (5 December 2021) and a range of human rights groups have expressed alarm at this latest attempt at sportswashing by the regime. Stars like Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will be in racing both of whom claim to be supportive of LGBTQ rights. Perhaps they are not aware that same sex relations in Saudi are banned and the penalty if caught is flogging.

The human rights situation in Saudi hardly needs repeating. The introduction to the 2020 Amnesty report for the country says:

Repression of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly has been intensified. Among those harassed, arbitrarily detained, prosecuted and/or jailed were government critics, women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, relatives of activists, journalists, members of the Shi’a minority and online critics of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all known Saudi Arabian human rights defenders inside the country were detained or imprisoned at the end of the year. Grossly unfair trials continued before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) and other courts. Courts resorted extensively to the death penalty and people were executed for a wide range of crimes. Migrant workers were even more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic, and thousands were arbitrarily detained in dire conditions, leading to an unknown number of deaths.

The regime likes to promote the fact that women can now drive without mentioning that those who campaigned for this freedom were imprisoned. Now released they are not allowed to speak to the press and their freedom of movement is tightly controlled.

There is a slight crumb of comfort in that there is greater media attention being paid to sportswashing and news of cases are beginning to appear in the sports pages. In response to criticisms a spokesman for F1 said:

We take our responsibilities on rights very seriously and set high ethical standards for counterparties and those in our supply chain, which are enshrined in contracts, and we pay close attention to their adherence. For decades Formula One has worked hard be a positive force everywhere it races, including economic, social, and cultural benefits. Sports like Formula One are uniquely positioned to cross borders and cultures to bring countries and communities together to share the passion and excitement of incredible competition and achievement.

‘For decades’ is key here since the situation in Saudi has not improved. The extent of its ‘positive force’ as it puts it is hard to discern and is not explained.

Historically, regimes like USSR and East Germany used sporting prowess to promote their credibility: who could forget stars like Olga Korbut for example? Today, Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to import sporting events to promote the myth that it is a reformed state. Their recent investment in Newcastle United is also part of this campaign. They are reported to have spent £1.5bn on this activity. Human Rights Watch has suggested it might be cheaper to reform itself rather than spend a fortune on sportswashing.

Might things change? The resolute action by the Women’s Tennis Association in relation to the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is perhaps an encouraging sign. Peng wrote about the abuse she sustained from a senior Chinese official and has all but disappeared. Only the IOC seems keen of maintaining the myth that she is free to live her life. The WTA on the other hand has received considerable support for its action.

Sources: Newsweek, BBC, Human Rights Watch, Wikipedia, Guardian.

Saudi takeover of Newcastle football club


The news today of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United is condemned by Amnesty

It was announced today (7 October 2021) that the Saudi Public Investment Fund has agreed a £300m takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. This has resurrected the argument about ‘Sportswash’ and countries with poor human rights records using sport to try and create a better image for themselves. Saudi Arabia has a particularly dire human rights record with the routine use of torture, capital punishment often by primitive means and in public, the poor treatment of women and the silencing of opposition to the regime.

The takeover has been welcomed in Newcastle and it was suggested by a reporter in the City that the fans were jubilant as it will mean the end of Mike Ashley’s ownership and the poor record by the club in the league during his time. Newcastle Chronicle has considerable coverage and photos of large numbers of jubilant fans. The newspaper describes the atmosphere as ‘electric’. On Twitter a tweet said it was about ‘returning a sense of pride’.

Newcastle is not the only football club or sport to accept money from dubious regimes so it would be unfair to single them out. Saudi’s human rights record is particularly dubious however. The list is long and includes the likely murder and dismemberment by Saudi agents of Jamal Khashoggi, the repression of dissidents and human rights defenders, several members of the royal family are still held incommunicado and there is no freedom of religion other than Islam.

Yemen is also a stain on the country with nearly 8,000 killed in air raids including 2,000 children. There is a blockade in place adding to the misery in the country.

Newcastle supporters can also claim that our own royal family and senior ministers have frequently visited the country and are on visible and seemingly good terms with Mohammed bin Salman. The UK is also a major supplier of weapons to the regime, despite evidence of the harm done in their use. To condemn the deal is, they might argue, hypocritical. The Saudis also own considerable real estate in London.

While all this is true, there is no escaping the reality of a terrible regime buying a famous football club to enable it to enhance its image in the world. Although the fans seem delighted with the decision, it remains the case that the money is tainted and from a particularly dire regime.

Sportswash and Grand Prix racing


Bahrain Grand Prix puts motor sport in the spotlight again

Listen to the podcast of this post.

One of the countries which consistently ignores human rights is the Kingdom of Bahrain in the Gulf. The list of infractions is rather long: trials are unfair and confessions extracted using torture; there is no freedom of speech and the last independent newspaper was closed three years ago; women do not have equal rights; the death penalty has been reintroduced and prison conditions are exceedingly poor. Reports by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations set these out in some detail.

The UN report notes:

The Committee is concerned about reports that acts of torture and ill‑treatment are often committed by law enforcement officials, including as a means of eliciting confessions, that, despite the prohibition in domestic law, confessions obtained under duress have been used as evidence in court and that allegations made by defendants in this respect have not been adequately investigated. The Committee is also concerned about reports of torture in prisons, particularly in the Jau prison. It notes with concern the lack of information on investigations carried out and convictions handed down vis-à-vis the number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment (arts. 2, 6, 7 and 14).

United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner 2017

For some years, human rights groups have asked FIA, the Grand Prix organisation to adopt human rights policies but it’s website does not appear to have any such policy.

The Formula One champion, Lewis Hamilton, has spoken out about the human rights situation in Bahrain prior to the race starting tomorrow (28 March 2021). He said:

I don’t think we should be going to these countries and ignoring what is happening in those places, arriving, having a good time and then leave. Human rights I don’t think, should be a political issue. We all deserve equal rights.

Jerome Pigmire, AP, 25 March 2021

He went on to say that he had hoped to speak to the Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa after last year’s race. His answer is a little oblique explaining that such matters were best addressed in private without clarifying whether he had or not. In any event, this is progress and for a prominent driver to be highlighting this issue when the governing body itself seems unconcerned is encouraging. Apparently, Hamilton received letters from three survivors of torture in Bahrain giving details of extreme beatings and sexual abuse. This led him to try and educate himself into what was happening there which has included speaking to Amnesty International.

The Kingdom denies denies claims of human rights abuses saying that ‘[the] promotion and protection of human rights [are] an essential part of the Kingdom’s strategy in developing state institutions and national legislation.’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of Bahrain.

The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy have asked the new F1 CEO Stefan Domenicali to establish a commission of independent experts to investigate the human rights impact of F1’s activities in Bahrain (27 March).

Sport is about money. Despotic regimes have deep pockets with which to host international sporting events such as motor racing, football, boxing or golf. Few questions are asked and the sports pages of newspapers are full of action photos and breathless prose about these events. They rarely sully their coverage with information about the gross human rights infringements, torture and executions taking place in the host country. Blind eyes are turned.

But maybe things are beginning to change. Sporting heroes have huge followings sometimes from people who may not pay too much attention to politics. Perhaps Marcus Rashford and Lewis Hamilton are early examples of greater awareness by sporting stars of what is going on around them. Whereas human rights activists can be safely ignored by politicians, these stars with their huge followings, cannot be.

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