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Where is our human right to sport?

Ana RuizFri, 1 June 2018#RightsCulture

Sport: a natural ally to human rights

Sport is one of the best ambassadors to promote human rights and inclusion for all. Through sport, people learn values that cross gender, nationalities, age or even physical condition. It is now paramount to build stronger bridges to advocate for sport as a human right – to pledge, to defend and to promote it.

Sports are closely connected to the definition of many human rights: right to education, right to culture, right to health and wellbeing as well as the right to political participation. Sport is envisioned to be practiced without any kind of discrimination, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.  Sport can easily transmit many positive values, such as fairness, team building, equality, discipline, inclusion, perseverance and respect, all of which can be found in the Olympic Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Charter for Fundamental Rights. 

Despite this, many human rights violations occur due to mega sporting events (MSE). The protection of many rights and freedoms have been affected in celebrating MSEs, an example of which, was the mass evictions of residents from the favelas for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Other human rights violations range from labour rights, to migrants’ rights, children rights, as in the context of Qatar 2022, women rights. Discriminatory policies are also introduced, against, for example, minorities, the freedom of press and the freedom of assembly in the case of the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup 2018. Moreover, the rights of athletes are an unexplored terrain. There is still a major gap between the will to maximise results, and the dignity and the freedoms of athletes: freedom of movement, freedom of expression, religious freedoms, right to privacy, labour rights, etc.

Sport in human rights documents

Sport touches upon many human rights aspects and yet there is a clear omission of sports in international standards. Sports were mentioned at the UN level in the Human Rights Council resolution on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal. This led to the creation of an Advisory Committee on the study of the possibilities to use sport and the Olympic ideal to promote human rights.

Likewise, the UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education, Physical Activity and Sport in its Article 1 recognises ‘the practice of physical education, physical activity and sport is a fundamental right for all’. It highlights the right for everybody to enjoy sport without discrimination of any kind. Governmental, sport and educational institutions must support the practice of sports, which should be inclusive, adaptable and safe for all ages.

Lastly, MSEs are largely covered by the UN guiding principles on human rights and business, which contributes to the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate responsibility to respect human rights and the access to remedy.

Despite all this, there is a long way ahead to ensure the adequate protection of human rights in several sports. There is a clear need to translate good intentions and the recognition of sport as key elements of the human rights discourse and to turn them into a legally-binding element.

Ways forward

The protection of human rights needs to be given significant attention in aspects related to sports, particularly to ensure that rights are respected. Sport has a special status of autonomy, to highlight its independence. Breaches in the code of conduct of sports by athletes are decided by the sports federations or by Courts of Arbitration, which may facilitate interferences with the rights of the athlete. However, States and regional courts must acknowledge their jurisprudence and responsibility.

On the positive side, there is so much advocacy being done in the name of sport. The sports movement has taken stock of this new challenge and many civil society organisations have raised their concerns about gross human rights violations in the context of sporting events. Furthermore, sports authorities have taken a step forward in promoting rights by integrating human rights bodies within their structures. These bodies monitor compliance with United Nations' Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and other documents.

Sports also bring the spotlight to human rights violations happening in host countries. It should not be forgotten that giving a MSE to a country with flaws in their human rights protection, may also help shed light on particular topics and allow advocacy-driven change in these areas. That is why it is so crucial to establish a legal and binding connection between human rights protection and sports.

The question of sport and human rights is gradually becoming part of international sports policy, as well as the sports movement. It is a reflection of the ever-strengthening universality of human rights, of the major role sport plays for a large part of the world’s population, and also of a society which is becoming more litigious.

The original article was published on a monthly blog related to human rights work at the Bridge. The student-run initiative aims to bridge the gap between academia and human rights practice. Throughout interactive discussions, they aim to create a space for constructive dialogue so as to productively contribute to the human rights canon.

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