Significant human rights risks identified as part of an analysis ahead of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup have been ignored by the sport’s international governing body, raising concerns for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).
- The AHRC flagged “tier 1” concerns about athletes, workers and Indigenous people’s rights over issues like discrimination, abuse and exploitation
- FIFA’s response “doesn’t engage with the risk assessment in a really comprehensive way”, according to the head of the AHRC
- FIFA declined to speak to the ABC, and the 2023 organising committee in Sydney did not reply before publication
Commissioned by FIFA, the AHRC analysis identified 57 risks associated with Australia’s co-hosting of the event to be staged in numerous cities around the country from July.
Risks raised include the rights of athletes, workers, First Nations people and children, with 21 of them earning a “tier 1” ranking, the most serious of three tiers.
“In and of itself, that’s not surprising,” AHRC commissioner Lorraine Finlay told The Ticket.
“When you do an in-depth risk analysis like that you will identify a wide variety of human rights issues to think about.
“What’s important is what comes next — what do you do when you identify those risks? How do you address them? How do you actually put things into action to make sure that those risks aren’t borne out? That’s the critical thing.
“And that’s where I do have concerns coming into the Women’s World Cup.”
The AHRC handed over its analysis in December 2021.
FIFA responded with a Sustainability Strategy full of colourful diagrams and explainers with buzz words such as “identify”, “develop”, “promote” and “engage”, but short on descriptions about how these so-called priorities are – or will be — acted upon.
Australia’s green and gold decade, as it is often described by sports and government officials, is sold on the legacies that will be left behind by staging expensive international tournaments such as the Women’s World Cup (2023), the Commonwealth Games (2026) and the Olympic and Paralympic Games (2032).
FIFA’s Sustainability Strategy document says its “priorities and initiatives … will continue to evolve”.
“There are some really good things in there, there are some fantastic priorities … but, overall, it doesn’t engage with the risk assessment in a really comprehensive way,” Ms Finlay said.
“[It] doesn’t address all of those 57 risks that are identified, or the  tier 1 risks. In fact, in terms of the risks that FIFA has engaged with, the numbers are a lot less than that.”
Some of the tier 1 risks identified by the AHRC in the FIFA-commissioned analysis include:
- Athletes’ rights: athletes suffer gender and sex discrimination through lack of pay parity, investment in the tournament, inappropriate health and welfare considerations for athletes and proportion of paid versus unpaid roles held by women and gender minorities
- Workers’ rights: exploitation of workers in cleaning, hospitality (highly feminised sectors in Australia … and therefore increased risk to vulnerable women, including women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, as well as many young workers)
- All participants: players, officials, volunteers and spectators experience racial abuse and harassment
- Indigenous people’s rights: exclusion and marginalisation; tokenistic representation; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples do not receive financial and other benefits generated by the tournament despite the hosting of that tournament on Indigenous land
As Qatar discovered in hosting the FIFA Men’s World Cup late last year, human rights issues can detract from the tournament.
In that country, it was workers’ rights that came under the spotlight. Significant legal and cultural changes were made. While the implementation of those changes is ongoing.
Ms Finlay said Australia had its own challenges and, despite having a largely positive story to tell, there was a “but”.
“And it’s a really big but,” she said.
“We’re not perfect, and we do have some very serious human rights issues in this country that we do urgently need to address.”
Some of those issues include First Nations people being the most incarcerated people in the world per head of population, the detention of asylum seekers, and a youth detention “crisis”, according to the AHRC commissioner.
The recent cancellation of a visit by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) makes Australia one of only two nations, along with Rwanda, to have an SPT visit cancelled altogether.
Australia was one of over 90 signatories to the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).
Australia’s extended deadline for implementing its obligations was January 2023, but the deadline passed, and an already-postponed visit was called off altogether when certain states – particularly NSW and Queensland — could not guarantee the expert committee would have access to places of detention.
“We are in breach of our OPCAT obligations and it sends a really terrible signal to the rest of the world,” Ms Finlay said.
“But it also masks an underlying issue … that Indigenous Australians continue to be significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system … and that’s been a problem for an incredibly long time.
“The youth justice system in this country is in crisis at the moment.”
Five years on from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre remains open. There are other areas of concern too.
“Just this [past] week, the Queensland government has introduced new rules into parliament to tackle the youth-crime issue,” Ms Finlay said.
“But these are laws that they themselves admit violate fundamental human rights obligations and that the experts are telling us won’t actually have the impact in terms of community safety and protection that the government is hoping.
“When you look at things like the FIFA Women’s World Cup … there is going to be an international spotlight on us and I want Australia to put our best foot forward and show the world what a great example we can be. But we need to lift our game in a lot of respects.
“If we want to be able to shine a spotlight on other countries and criticise them for their human rights violations, we need to subject ourselves to that same scrutiny.”
Many Australians can live their lives each day without having to think about human rights abuses since they are rarely impacted. Marginalised groups often experience a different reality.
“There are groups in the community that are particularly vulnerable … where there are incredibly serious issues going on,” Ms Finlay said.
“At the end of the day, we need human rights to be protected across Australia for everybody, and not just for certain sections of our community.”
Mega-sporting events have become a contested space where organisers and hosts want only to promote the positives around the event, while others use the platform to give a voice to people or causes that may not normally have one.
The label “sports washing” is often used to describe events in nations other than our own, yet Australia runs the risk of falling into the same category.
“You can have great policies and great announcements, but if that doesn’t translate into action on the ground, if it doesn’t translate into durable legacies resulting from these sporting events, then actually what you’re doing is really quite superficial and it’s not good enough from a human rights perspective,” Ms Finlay said.
The ABC requested interviews with FIFA in Zurich and FIFA’s local organisers in Sydney.
FIFA HQ said nobody was available but referred the ABC to the sustainability strategy. The local organisers are yet to respond.
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