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Taking ‘collective action’ on human rights and Mega Sporting Events – interview with IHRB Chief Executive John Morrison

The importance of ‘collective action’ in protecting and respecting human rights around Mega Sporting Events is the focus for the ‘Sporting Chance Forum’, which Terre des Hommes will attend in Geneva next week.

Around 150 representatives from governments, sports governing bodies, UN agencies, NGOs and trade unions, sponsors and broadcasters will gather to focus on the issue of human rights around Mega Sporting Events, such as the Olympics or FIFA World Cup finals.

Building on the success of last year’s Forum in Washington DC, the event is being hosted by the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. Here, in the first of a two-part interview, Children Win speaks to John Morrison, Chief Executive of IHRB.

 

Children Win: Why is collective action so important?

John Morrison: Because no one actor can solve this on their own. Even with sports bodies now introducing human rights criteria when they award the Games – which only includes the four biggest at the moment – they still have to hold the hosts to account. So governments and local authorities have a role. As do, for example sponsors and broadcasters, who represent the bulk of the funding for such events. So we are much more likely to see change in the way human rights risks are managed in sport if collective leverage is fully utilised. Sports events are also optional and extremely prestigious – we should all expect the very highest standards to be reached by all those involved in delivering games.

 

CW: What is the Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights?

JM: The Mega-Sporting Events Platform for Human Rights (MSE Platform) is an unusual coalition which has come together over the past two years. It brings together trade unions and NGOs but also governments and intergovernmental organisations, sports bodies, hosts, sponsors and broadcasters – the whole value chain of major sporting events, and all of the organisations which represent the affected groups, whether they be children, athletes, workers, communities, fans, or journalists. For the first time in history, all of these different actors have come together to try to make these events better. We can’t let it be taken for granted that mega-sporting events will abuse rights, for example worker deaths and injuries during the construction phase or having people arrested, tortured, or disappeared for defending their and others’ rights – that’s not sustainable. Everyone has come together because they want to break this ‘Groundhog Day’ cycle every four years, and create events that are truly better for the rights of everyone involved, rather than leading to often preventable impacts.

 

CW: Why is it important to have sports bodies involved?

JM: Sports governing bodies and federations are central. We are very pleased that four of the main international sports governing bodies have made commitments to respect human rights at policy level: FIFA, the IOC, UEFA and the Commonwealth Games Federation. They are all involved in the MSE Platform now and have been making proactive contributions to share their lessons with other sports bodies that might be less familiar with human rights, and to engage seriously with the NGOs, Unions, and governments within the MSE Platform.

 

CW: How long has this all taken? Why is it gathering so much momentum now?

JM: IHRB works on business and human rights around the world, and for us the story (in sport) really started with the legacy of London 2012. Shaun McCarthy, who chaired the London Sustainability Commission, had reports on the 2012 Games’ social impacts, but he had no-one to give them to, because the IOC was only partially interested back then on these issues, and Rio only had a certain amount of capacity to absorb that learning. He knocked on our door and said ‘would you be the vehicle or vessel to make sure these lessons are not forgotten?’.

We worked a lot in the run-up to the World Cup in Brazil 2014 and the Rio 2016 Olympics, but what really got this going in terms of a platform was the controversies surrounding FIFA a few years ago, and mega-sporting events generally losing their ‘social licence’, for example when Western cities began withdrawing from hosting, such as Hamburg, Boston, Oslo and Rome. These events are at risk of being perceived by local communities to only have negative impacts and not have long-term benefits for them. Over the last two years we have begun to see a rebalancing, and sport and human rights is very much part of that.

 

CW: Tell us about the Sporting Chance Forum which takes places next week in Geneva.

JM: We have created the Sporting Chance Forum, along with the MSE Platform, to create an annual drumbeat by which we can all measure our own progress and also send a message to the wider world.

This year it’s in Switzerland; last year it was hosted by the previous US government in Washington DC, and Martina Navratilova gave a very compelling keynote speech where she talked about not just being a gay athlete but about being state-less and about her affinity with workers and children, and other groups affected by these events.

 

This year we are very proud to be talking about how we institutionalise this to become a more permanent way of working. I think all of the actors involved are seeing the long-term value of collaborating. It doesn’t mean we are all going to agree on everything; for example, Terre des Hommes and other NGOs will continue to push and campaign, but there is also this common ground where people are going to work together to make these events better. We have a wonderful array of keynote speakers at the Forum this year, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, as well as high level representatives from governments, local organising committees, sponsors, broadcasters, trade unions, NGOs, as well as several individuals sharing their own personal experiences of how they’ve been affected by these events in different ways. We will all be making some level of commitment publicly to continue to work together and to institutionalise it.

 

CW: What role can the ‘Children Win’ campaign from Terre des Hommes play?

JM: It’s been a privilege working with Terre des Hommes because they have been talking to the Swiss-based governing bodies for years about child rights. The primary focus is about children in the supply chain –  and ensuring that when a mega-sporting event is put on that children are not put at risk, as they were in Rio for example. Then there’s this wider focus of how children perceive sport and are engaged in sport, and how they think about themselves in wider society.

Sport is the perfect conduit for talking to children and young people all around the world about their rights, their future and their identity. We can communicate to them that they all have a place on the playing field, which is a brilliant metaphor for talking about wider society at the moment. The world is facing this backlash against globalisation, with populism and nationalism surging. So we are looking at sport in a way that we haven’t looked at it for decades, and for it to play this unifying role, with child rights sitting right in the centre. And, if sport is often portrayed as a microcosm for life, then the mega sporting event lifecycle can also be seen as a microcosm for the business and human rights space writ large, and an important way to communicate widely about rights and responsibilities.

 

CW: With recent human rights commitments made by governing bodies – such as the criteria incorporated into the Host City Contracts for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, or the bidding guidelines for the 2026 World Cup finals – is it important to keep the pressure on around events happening sooner?

JM: Yes. The commitments that FIFA have made are not just to wait until the 2026 bidding round, there are governance issues within FIFA itself, there are supply chain issues in relation to Russia and Qatar. Similarly the IOC is starting to see it’s not just about 2024 and beyond. It’s about what the IOC can start doing now, and in the months and years ahead. UEFA and the Commonwealth Games are also undertaking their own work on embedding human rights into their systems.

We need other sports bodies to also join the journey. It isn’t about making a commitment and saying ‘hold on folks, let’s wait four to six years and then you’ll see the results’ … the world won’t wait that long. The social licence has been challenged so much, not just because of human rights but because of corruption, because of ethics and other issues. Human rights can’t take a rain-check – the work has to start now, and I think the MSE Platform makes sure that the work does start now.

 

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