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The state of human rights in Qatar ahead of the 2022 men's FIFA World Cup

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The 2022 men's soccer World Cup kicks off on Sunday in Qatar. For years in the run-up to this tournament, the small Gulf nation has been under intense international scrutiny for its troubling human rights record. Thousands of migrant workers reportedly died during construction of World Cup infrastructure. Human rights groups say workers were often forced to work under unsafe conditions, including in extreme heat. They also point to the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and warned that visiting LGBTQ fans and players could face legal trouble in the country. Qatari officials say everyone will be welcome at the World Cup and that they have enacted labor reforms in recent years to improve conditions for migrant workers. Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. And I asked her what groups like hers would like to see at this point from Qatar and FIFA, soccer's governing body.

MINKY WORDEN: What dozens of human rights groups are seeking is what we call a remedy fund. And this would be a fund set up by FIFA and the Qatari government to compensate families of migrant workers. These workers, many of them lost their lives delivering the World Cup. And under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, FIFA is required to compensate those families. So if a worker died delivering infrastructure or a stadium for the World Cup, FIFA and Qatar have a responsibility to make it right to that family.

CHANG: And how much responsibility has FIFA taken in this run-up to the World Cup to press the Qatari government on human rights issues? In your mind, how much responsibility have they claimed?

WORDEN: FIFA has a - what they would call a partnership model. And that partnership model means that when Russia is your partner, the World Cup goes to Russia, and the World Cup is used by Putin to burnish his reputation on the world stage and to set the stage for future aggression. In the case of Qatar, Qatar's using the World Cup to build soft power for itself in the region and in the world. That means that FIFA had a lot of leverage with its partner. And Human Rights Watch has been pressuring FIFA for many years to put in place protections for journalists, for women, for LGBT people, for fans, for players and, most of all, for the 2 million migrant workers or more who were building World Cup infrastructure. So FIFA had all of the leverage but ahead of the World Cup has not delivered on its responsibility to pay the families of workers who have died building infrastructure.

CHANG: As you mentioned, a previous men's World Cup took place in Russia - that was back in 2018 - Russia being another country with a very problematic human rights record. Let me ask you, what message does it send when a huge, lucrative tournament like the World Cup takes place repeatedly in countries where human rights seemed to be trampled?

WORDEN: Well, there's a word for that. We call it sportswashing. It's really being picked up by governments like China, Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are prepared to spend billions of dollars to burnish their reputation on the world stage by hosting beloved sporting events. I think all of your listeners may have - may remember sitting around with families and cheering for their favorite World Cup teams. It's really governments with very repressive human rights policies almost weaponizing your love for football or your love for soccer or your love for the Olympics. And it's a very dangerous global trend.

CHANG: Well, as the World Cup gets underway in Qatar this month, what will Human Rights Watch be looking for specifically?

WORDEN: Will FIFA and Qatar set up a multimillion-dollar fund to compensate the families of workers who died to deliver their World Cup? Without that happening before the first ball is kicked, there really can be no celebration. And I think for the future, players and fans should never again be forced to choose between the game they love and supporting human rights. Players are already making videos and wearing uniforms that have the words human rights emblazoned across their chests. I think it's a very important statement that players are standing with the workers who built the stadiums where they will play. And maybe that is the best way forward for sport - it is that it no longer assigns its most important events based solely on who puts the most money on the table.

CHANG: That was Minky Worden. She's the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. Thank you very much.

WORDEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
William Troop
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.