The writer is president of the Human Rights Campaign.
The steady drumbeat of bribery allegations and horrific reports of migrant worker deaths have disturbed fans, alarmed sponsors and finally forced FIFA — the governing body responsible for organizing the quadrennial tournament — to reexamine the selection of the tiny, oil-rich emirate to host soccer’s most celebrated event.
Following the international outcry against the inhumane treatment of the thousands of foreign-born workers who are rapidly building the stadiums and infrastructure needed by 2022, FIFA has reportedly indicated that it’s considering plans to evaluate Qatar’s human rights record as part of any potential re-vote on the nation’s bid. More important, these plans would require similar reviews of all countries submitting bids for tournaments.
Taking this step would create a unique opportunity to hold potential host nations accountable on an international stage like few others. But to truly seize this moment and use the World Cup as a positive force for global change, FIFA must carefully examine each nation’s record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights as part of its reviews.
That examination should start with Qatar, for when it comes to the treatment of LGBT people, Qatar is in a league of its own.
Qatar is one of only 10 nations in the world that allow for the execution of LGBT individuals. While such a sentence is technically reserved for Muslims, homosexuality is punishable by up to seven years in prison for anyone living in or visiting the emirate. According to Amnesty International, in recent years dozens of individuals have been sentenced to floggings of “40 to 100 lashes” for crimes including “illicit sexual relations,” among others. It is believed that many of those sentenced were foreigners; and a U.S. citizen in Qatar was whipped 90 times and served six months in prison for “homosexual activity” in 1995.
This is disturbing news for LGBT people who want to attend the World Cup in 2022, as well as for the coaches and players who would participate in the tournament. It runs counter to statements made this month by Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who said LGBT World Cup players should be able to “declare their sexual orientation without fear.” It also flies in the face of FIFA’s stated commitment to ensuring that “everybody has the right to play football free from discrimination or prejudice.”
Unfortunately, the response from FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, to such concerns has been deeply inadequate. Soon after the selection of Qatar was announced in 2010, Blatter answered a question about the safety of LGBT soccer fans traveling there for the World Cup by joking that “they should refrain from any sexual activities.”
The safety and welfare of LGBT people in Qatar is no laughing matter, and that’s especially true for those who live there. According to the State Department, LGBT individuals are forced to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity, and there are no LGBT organizations, pride marches, advocacy events or anti-discrimination laws. Victims of discrimination, the department said, are “unlikely to come forth and complain because of the potential for further harassment or discrimination.”
Much like scoring a game-winning goal, securing a World Cup bid is an opportunity for a nation’s citizens to beat their chests with pride and showcase their country’s history, heritage and aspirations. But if a nation were to lose a bid because of human rights and anti-LGBT abuses, those who face state-sanctioned discrimination and violence for simply being who they are would be given a much-needed message of hope and progress.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was able to bask in the global spotlight during the Sochi Winter Olympics mere months after signing viciously homophobic and transphobic laws, is due for an encore performance when Russia hosts the World Cup in 2018. If human rights reviews are incorporated into its selection processes, FIFA should hold a new vote on Russia’s bid, and the International Olympic Committee would do well to implement similar reforms.
FIFA proudly declares that a “crucial pillar” of its mission is “building a better future for all through football.” It’s time for it to show the world it means it.