Human Rights v. World Cup

“How can we balance our love of the game with our commitment to human rights?” asks Human Rights Watch Deputy Director, Iain Levine, in his timely opinion piece in Foreign Policy.

It’s hard not to feel the excitement building in the early matchups of the much-anticipated 2014 FIFA World Cup. Chatter in line at the grocery. Boisterous bars at odd hours of the day. Seven-year-olds professing their undying love for Argentina. Facebook statuses consisting simply of “GOOOOOOOOAL!”

But as Levine points out, for human rights activists committed to exposing and rectifying infringements of our fundamental freedoms such as access to safe, quality reproductive health care across the world, the World Cup conjures some complicated dilemmas that can impede rabid fandom:

How can a human rights activist focus on the action when Algeria (restriction of freedoms of assembly and association and prosecutions of union leaders) takes on Russia (worst crackdown on civil liberties since the end of the Soviet Union, egregious anti-LGBT discrimination and abuses in north Caucasus)? What about when Australia (punitive and illegal policies against the rights of refugees and asylum seekers) faces Spain (proposed restrictions on reproductive rights and failure to protect all those facing evictions).

Fortunately, as Levine notes, many of the worst offenders in the human rights arena—Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkmenistan, Belarus, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan—have not made it to the World Cup arenas at all. On the other hand, of the countries that have made it to the elite tournament, it’s hard to find a team that escapes cleanly with the title of Good Guy.

For example, the United States falls short in its responsibility to ensure health care for all women. Increased state restrictions on women’s access to reproductive health care services disproportionately harm poor, rural, and immigrant women—specifically violating their human rights to non-discrimination, privacy, and equal protection of the laws.

It is possible, however, to see an upside to human rights violators taking the international limelight. Levine comments that already there have been notable instances of excessive police violence, torture, and appalling prison conditions across host country Brazil as the tournament gets underway. Perhaps it will be a bit harder to hide these abuses when the whole world is watching.