This browser is not actively supported anymore. For the best passle experience, we strongly recommend you upgrade your browser.
| 5 minutes read

Human rights and the world of sport: reflections on the Sporting Chance Forum

Last week Rosie Duthie and I reported our reflections from the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, where a key theme was stakeholder engagement and how to build meaningful partnerships. Both are important elements of the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (‘UNGPs’) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on Responsible Business Conduct (‘OECD Guidelines’), which states that ‘meaningful stakeholder engagement refers to ongoing engagement … that is two-way, conducted in good faith by the participants on both sides and responsive to stakeholders’ views.’

For those involved in the world of sport, last week’s Sporting Chance Forum (‘SCF’) - officially part of the United Nations Human Rights 75, a year-long initiative to commemorate the anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – offered that opportunity for meaningful stakeholder engagement. 

Chaired by the Honorary Chair of the Centre for Sport & Human Rights, Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, chair of The Elders), there was representation at the SCF from all corners of the sport ecosystem with panel sessions including: transformational leadership and cultural change; the ‘S’ in ESG when it comes to sport; safe, effective and appropriate remedies; integrating human rights considerations into host city actions; and the transformative future of women’s sports.  

Many participants cited Nelson Mandela’s powerful words in 2000 that ‘sport has the power to change the world…to inspire…to unite people in ways that little else does’. Nevertheless, the predominant theme was that sport needs to work for all – and it has not always done so, often to athletes’ detriment. The SCF offered a rich and, at times, challenging series of conversations on integrating human rights considerations in the world of sport, with particular emphasis on hearing the experiences of athletes, especially those from marginalised communities.

Key themes from the conference:

1.  The application of the UNGPs to the world of sport

It comes as no great to surprise to those of us working in the field of business and human rights that there was revitalised focus at this year’s SCF on what the soft law, and increasingly hard law, business and human rights landscape looks like for sports bodies, sponsors, broadcasters, and other enterprises engaged in the world of sport. A panel dedicated to the ‘S’ of ESG focused on the risks, regulations and responsibilities shaping the future of sport. The panel noted that the OECD Guidelines and UNGPs, as authoritative global standards of responsible business conduct, already apply to multinational enterprises across all economic sectors, without exception, including those in the sport sector. The EU’s draft Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, among other proposed and existing laws, will formalise the substance of these requirements for many organisations. 

In other sessions, representatives from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the Fédération internationale de football association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), among others, set out how they are already implementing human rights programmes throughout their organisations as well as in their bidding requirements and planning for mega sporting events. UEFA reminded the SCF of its recent adoption of a human rights declaration for UEFA Europe 2024. FIFA spoke about the implementation of its human rights commitments for the FIFA World Cup 2026, all part of the action it has taken since its ground-breaking human rights impact assessment in 2016. The IOC referenced its human rights framework, published in 2022 and actions taken under it.

2. Athletes’ experience

Participants at the SCF reflected that athletes are often romanticised – to the extent that we sometimes forget to see them as individuals. Given how integral athletes are to the world of sport, there was an emphasis during conference discussions on thinking and hearing much more about athletes’ experiences, particularly when things have gone wrong. The panel which addressed experiences of racism, and how this has affected people’s lives, was particularly moving: the challenge put to the conference was how to create transformation and culture change on this and other issues. 

The answer seemed to be, at least in part, through ongoing conversation and meaningful stakeholder engagement, as is core to the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines. But not just with stakeholders already identified: panellists reflected often on the benefits of asking who is not in the stakeholder engagement group, why not and what could be learnt from them. FIFA and civil society closed the SCF with a panel reflecting on what they had learnt through working together on the FIFA World Cup 2026, and the challenging but productive engagement they continue to have. 

Finally, various contributors called for athletes to be seen in a new light.  Not just as stars of the track and field, but also as workers and, on occasion, as human rights defenders – and to be afforded the protections that go with that status. In that regard, the International Labour Organisation referenced the announcement earlier in 2023 of discussions with the World Leagues Forum (WLF) and the Fédération Internationale des Associations de Footballeurs Professionnels (FIFPRO) to further address work issues in the professional football sector.

3. Remedy

As identified by Rosie and I last week, the issue of remedy for human rights harms is likely to rise in prominence in the coming years as mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence (MHREDD) obligations mature. Many organisations continue to grapple with this challenge, and the SCF demonstrated that the world of sport also still has some way to go to achieve the standards required in the UNGPs and the OECD Guidelines: that grievance mechanisms should be legitimate, accessible, predictable, equitable, transparent, rights-compatible and a source of continuous learning. As one panellist mused, perhaps the win at all costs culture of sport, coupled with the short-term nature of most athletes’ careers, means at times there may be a willingness to turn away from problems to preserve sporting excellence. Changing systems and culture, and keeping athletes’ experience as the focus, is likely to improve the approach over time.

Reflections on next steps

The SCF will return in 2025. 

In the meantime, I expect increased focus on the role of business enterprises in the world of sport. As MHREDD obligations mature in many jurisdictions, business entities undertaking their due diligence will very likely expand their focus into their touchpoints with the sports ecosystem. 

Many are already thinking about this, as demonstrated by the presence at the SCF of sports bodies, sponsors and broadcasters – but they are by no means in the majority. If not through MHREDD, the human rights lens in the world of sport may become apparent to others as they participate in bidding processes for mega sporting events where human rights impact assessments will become mainstream requirements – or because they are in the value chain of those that do.

Concerns about sportswashing will no doubt continue, but in-depth dialogue such as that seen at the conference is likely to assuage such concerns when talk is backed up by meaningful action. Unlike as sometimes expected in sports endeavours, the SCF reiterated that perfection is not needed; it’s the participation and wholehearted effort to identify, prevent, mitigate and remedy human rights harms that counts.

*Moira is co-chair of the Board of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights.