The Qatar World Cup: A Tale of Uncomfortable Contortions

The Qatar World Cup: A Tale of Uncomfortable Contortions

Whether you are the most ardent football aficionado, or just an Arsenal fan, the controversies generated by the World Cup in Qatar will have reached your ears. Depending on political priorities, your interlocutor may have furnished a tapestry of accusations justifying the boycott of this tournament. Throughout the critique, three broad themes prevail: labour-related violations of human rights, gender-specific violations of human rights, and ecological aberrations. 

Barring the occasional combative British anchor or contrarian commentator, debate is mostly absent, with the litany of unpardonable accusations posing as both evidence and conviction. The few conversations that persist are charged with the language of hypocrisy. Defenders of the World Cup argue the criticisms applied to Qatar by (mostly) Western commentators are hypocritical, ignoring similar violations that manifest within their countries, with accusers dismissing rebuttals as whataboutism

This debate mirrors some questions which continue to occupy modern legal debate. Among them are universality (are there universal values which should garner international consensus?), sovereignty (should Qatar be coerced into reshaping its domestic policies?), and the hierarchy of values in Third World morality (why is the consistent Western criticism so readily dismissed by the South?). Most importantly, there has been a clear discrepancy between the Western voices which have spoken up in protest of this event, and the general Third World, whose lack of condemnation has drawn much ire. In the face of accusations mentioned above, shouldn’t the opposition be unified? Perhaps the perspective of the situation from the Global South is not as categorical as Western accusations make it seem. Let us consider the three arguments in turn.

The first accusation is that Qatar violated the labour rights of migrant workers who built the stadiums, namely with sub-par working conditions which led to numerous deaths. The numbers vary, but the most recurrent claim contends that 6,500 migrants from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago. Though this number has been questioned by the International Labor Organization for including all migrant deaths in Qatar over a decade, the secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy admitted in a recent TV interview that there have been “between 400 and 500” migrant worker deaths in the last 12 years from any construction related to the World Cup. From a factual point of view, the existence of these violations is incontestable. 

Putting aside the debate surrounding the number, the argument as a whole features a curious specificity: Qatar’s legitimacy as a World Cup host is impugned by human rights violations and deaths associated with the construction of stadiums. In other words, we should boycott the event (and, implicitly, only boycott) because the methods used in its organisation were illicit. 

At first, I was unclear what purpose the specification served. Why distinguish between stadium-related human rights violations and those which are not stadium-related? Shouldn’t all violations be equal? One of the implications is that the boycott is warranted if the event is stained by any violation, but that violations external to it are irrelevant. This immediately begs a number of questions: would it be acceptable if they built the stadiums in perfect labour conditions, but the regime had engaged in unrelated humanitarian crimes? Does this mean that a scenario where a host commits egregious violations of human rights outside the purview of their event is acceptable?  Since this is an event which mobilises the entire state apparatus, and serves to spotlight countries as a whole, would it not make sense to consider the greater collection of the country’s human rights record?

Readers familiar with the intersection between Third World Approaches to International Law and critiques of capitalism are familiar with the argument. The answer lies somewhere between globalisation and alienation, or the Western ability to export human rights violations and human suffering. What is the advantage of distinguishing between specific labour-related violations and wider human rights records when considering prospective hosts? One possible answer is the wider appraisal of illegal behaviour produces a deeply unappealing picture of many Western states. The justification for this is easy to grasp: developing countries sometimes struggle with producing a robust domestic human rights system. Developed, Western nations, on the other hand, have (supposedly) overcome such struggles, which ensures a cleaner national human rights record. Of course, for the claim to hold, we must exorcise foreign hegemony and the manifestations of imperialism from the equation. Otherwise, a plethora of violations would catapult to the forefront including Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, countless assassinations and coups, populations decimated by sanctions and, of course, Rana Plaza. Consideration of these violations would provide a darker image of any Western bid. Did the Guardian champion a boycott of the 2019 Eurovision (in Israel)? Will the Germans mime performative grief at the 2026 World Cup (in the USA)?

Another factor which explains the relative cleanliness of Western track records is their ability to export the suffering on which first world lifestyles feed. While forced labour might be less explicit on British soil (appearing instead under the guise of exploitation and human trafficking), the UK football jerseys are still made overseas by Bangladeshi workers for a penance. We can extend the same argument to the technology and fashion brands which are status symbols in the West but outsource their production processes to Uighur labour camps in China. Forced labour and other outsourced aberrations remain commonplace in the Third World, though not much more than they could be perceived in recently industrialised Europe. 

Focusing on stadium-related issues alone is a profoundly pro-Western stance in a context where suffering is shipped to the Third World for the right price. If we assess human rights records globally, the conclusions are uncomfortable: which country would have a moral record pure enough to host the World Cup? Would it be the United States or the UK who illegally invade countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc), committing mass human rights violations and destabilising entire regions along the way? Or European colonial countries that reap the profits of their imperial legacies? If we account for a global human rights record, suddenly, Qatar, Iran, and China appear far more desirable hosting nations (or, for that matter, most of the African, Asian, and South American continents). 

The second issue was the limitation placed on LGBTQ+ rights in Qatari society, testament to the lack of universality of human rights. In the spirit of the previous discussion on newly adopted rights, we should probably also recognise that LGBTQ+ rights are a recent awakening in the West, which remained illegal in places like Germany, Canada, Spain, and Portugal, as late as the end of the 20th century.

Yet again, the implications of barring non-LGBTQ+ friendly nations from consideration are worthy of discussion. Should we only host events in LGBTQ+ friendly states? If so, where do we draw the line? Should we also consider levels of universal education and healthcare? Are housing and, conversely, houselessness rates relevant as well? Or is there a hierarchy within human rights with the only ones that matter those we can beat others over the head with? Is this an effective strategy for promoting a global human rights agenda? To push the line of questioning further: will we consider all social and cultural questions when selecting the hosts of sporting events? What does this mean for the US’ approach to abortion rights or Japan’s toward the death penalty? 

Ecology is the final argument served up, with the outrage focused on the decision to cool the stadiums. Putting aside Qatar’s inauguration of solar power plants to provide clean energy for the stadiums, the implications behind this accusation also evidence the same performative posturing. Despite being held in the middle of the winter season, Qatari and Middle Eastern climates generally require man-made assistance to render the climate hospitable. The rejection of technological interventions poses many uncomfortable questions. Should we only organise global sporting events in European and North American climates? Should we ban them from the Middle East and Africa altogether? Is this not simply a rejection of the world as it is? Once again, impartial observers might be eager to highlight this accusation features yet another arbitrary standard, when the ecological footprint of sports in Europe and the USA is so much greater, lest we forget the private jets flying teams across the ocean for vanity performances at Wembley

I am not making the case for Qatari legitimacy, but to provide context to the debate that accounts for non-Western views. The boycott narrative is consistent with an increasing Southern disillusionment with the double standards on offer. In this instance, many of the arguments in favour of the boycott of Qatar’s World Cup are rooted in Eurocentrism and European exceptionalism. Seen from a different perspective, the trident of accusations essentially contends that: we should bar developing countries with atypical climates from playing sports or hosting events until they adopt select Western social and cultural values and clean up select aspects of their broad human rights record.

By this measure, only countries that invade and brutalise others can lay claim to future events. I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently flexible to manage these contortions. 

Omar Kamel is a Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher in Public International Law at the Sciences Po Law School in Paris. He is currently appointed as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University, and a Political Humanities Fellow at Sciences Po. His PhD research appraises the influence of mass media on the interpretation of international law in the context of armed conflicts in the Middle East.

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