The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Charges of human rights hypocrisy at World Cup are rooted in history

There have been multiple approaches to human rights issues, and the debate has evolved over time

FIFA President Gianni Infantino attends a news conference in Doha on Nov. 19, ahead of the Qatar World Cup football tournament. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)
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With the final games looming in the FIFA World Cup, Qatar’s human rights record has slightly faded from the spotlight. Although pre- and post-match media coverage no longer directly reports on the mistreatment of labor migrants, women and LGBTQ people in the country, these themes have been central to how this event is understood.

This pattern — of loud highlighting of abuses in the run-up to an event, followed by relative silence — has been seen during the world cups in South Africa, Brazil and Russia, as well. In 2020, on German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, founding director of FairSquare Nicholas McGeehan commented that “there was a lot of coverage of what was happening [with domestic protests], but that all vanished once the whistles blew” for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Qataris and others from the Global South have taken the opportunity to demand equal respect for “other cultures with different values” and to decry what appears to be opportunistic and selective attention to human rights abuses by Western media outlets and others unwilling to turn a critical eye on themselves. Critiques of World Cup-related human rights abuses can appear shallow and performative, as if designed to assuage global guilt at partaking of a spectacle event that has proved so costly.

But rather than dismissing human rights talk as solely hypocritical, the recent World Cups show that there have been multiple approaches to human rights and how the debate has evolved over time, through the Cold War and decolonization and beyond.

After 1945, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) — chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt — debated the meaning of human rights within an emerging international system centered on the new United Nations. The horrors of the Holocaust diverted attention specifically to the role of the state in human rights abuses — focusing on what states would be permitted and forbidden to do under an international framework.

As Roosevelt, Pen-Chun Chang, Charles Malik, William Hodgson, Hernan Santa Cruz, René Cassin, Alexandre Bogomolov, Charles Dukes and John P. Humphrey drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1946-1948, they also pitted concepts of individual rights, such as freedom of movement, against collective rights such as the right to social welfare. This lack of consensus initially led the drafters to consider two documents — one based on individual rights, and the other on collective rights. Roosevelt disagreed vehemently. As commission chairwoman, she pressured the drafters into writing a single document that subsumed collective rights to individual freedoms.

In addition to silencing ideas, powerful states acted to block and silence the demands of colonized peoples. For instance, the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands used their power to block Ralph Bunche, an African American delegate who served on the Caribbean Commission, from discussing the “treatment of colonial peoples” at the 1945 meeting of the commission. “Colonial peoples” had been central to the global war against Nazism, which extended to their own backyards, fighting on behalf of European powers and contributing to the broader war effort. Yet when it came to having a seat at the table and defining the meaning of human rights for the postwar world, they were disempowered.

Despite tensions about who and what the UDHR was for, the U.N. General Assembly adopted it on Dec. 10, 1948 — a monumental global framework. Reception of the UDHR varied, though. While Roosevelt proclaimed this document as “the Magna Carta for all of mankind,” Hersch Lauterpacht — a professor of law at Cambridge University — denounced it as “fictitious authority.” Critics charged that the document was more of an intellectual exercise than something that could protect rights and freedoms, and it was clear that key actors prioritized the maintenance of empire in the drafting of the UDHR.

Yet the colonized world steadily liberated itself as the European empires collapsed. The United Nations grew from 51 members in 1945 to 127 members in 1970. Most were former subjects of European imperialism. New postcolonial states steadily took a larger role in U.N. discussions, particularly around human rights.

In the 1960s, internationalizing discussions on race and colonialism gained steam as the UNCHR debated whether to condemn all forms of racism. Israel, socialist states and many postcolonial states supported such a treaty, while the U.S. delegation staunchly opposed it, arguing instead to prioritize freedoms of expression and association. In short, the American delegation defended a person’s freedom to be racist without explicitly stating so. In a 1965 meeting on such a covenant, the Canadian delegation defended the American stance by claiming ownership of “the traditional Western concept of human rights.”

The Tanzanian delegate snapped back by saying that “it was the Western world that had given birth to colonialism and slavery, while the developing countries had suffered as a result.”

Ultimately, Western countries including the United States and Canada were unconvinced and continued to block a covenant against racism. Changes in U.S. domestic politics — the success of the civil rights movement, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s support for the 1965 Voting Rights Act — ultimately changed the American vote into an abstention rather than a “no.” On Dec. 21, 1965, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It was an expression of postcolonial states demanding and obtaining equality.

In the 1970s, the fluidity and multiple uses of “human rights” were part of a general call for revising the UDHR to include previously ignored subjects like women’s rights. The UDHR in 1945 did not mention, nor did the drafters attempt to address, sexism and gender violence. Feminists challenged this omission unrelentingly. On the last day of the World Congress of Women in International Women’s Year in East Berlin in 1975, a delegate from Women Overseas for Equality vociferously commented that sexism was “a huge obstacle to achieving true equal rights for women … as women adopt the stereotypical roles defined for them by men.” In 1979, the General Assembly enshrined “women’s rights as human rights” in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The decade’s work on human rights helped internationalize human rights beyond what had been adopted in 1945, when the United Nations was much smaller and before a majority of members were postcolonial states.

Unfortunately, the 1980s and 1990s saw limited implementation of this expanded vision of human rights protections. While the 1970s crystallized language to challenge a vision of individual rights that was defined by the West, the rise of neoliberalism shifted discussions away from major structural issues like racism, sexism and economic inequality to individual issues.

For example, discussions on economic inequality and poverty shifted. Rather than framing the issue as a matter of equality being constrained by social and cultural factors, the discussion became more focused on expanding equitable opportunities within markets. Theo van Boven — head of the U.N. human rights division — warned about this trend in 1980 by saying that “we risk the pursuit of an international economic order which neglects the deeper, structural causes of injustice.” Despite these concerns, a sense of optimism and hope emerged in human rights circles as the Cold War ended in the early 1990s. However, skepticism, indifference and hostility became rampant due to perceived U.N. inaction regarding the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Darfur.

Where does this leave us with situations like that in Qatar during the World Cup? When voices condemn the very notion of human rights as a form of Western hypocrisy and a way for powerful countries to exert power over less-powerful ones, they have a point that goes back to the very creation of these international institutions.

Yet there is more to the history than 1945. Over the decades, postcolonial actors actively contributed to the evolution of human rights, expanding the concept by directly challenging it. Ultimately, though, this expanded understanding of human rights has been only selectively upheld. If we still envision human rights as vital and relevant in this world, then we must, in the words of Samuel Moyn, “remake — or even leave behind” our current framework by adopting a more expansive vision of rights that addresses structural issues while also recognizing the decades of silencing of postcolonial actors by the Global North.