Amnesty International is calling on FIFA to exert more influence over Qatar to end abuses against migrant workers. The human rights organization has focused on the relationship between sport and human rights for more than half a century.
The Dutch national team will begin qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar this week. The discussions are not so much about choosing the players, but whether participation in the event is responsible at all. Amnesty International is attracting the most attention with a special campaign targeting Qatar.
The human rights organization is not focusing on sporting events for the first time, because something similar also happened in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Then there was the 1978 FIFA World Cup, where AI wanted to speak to KNVB about the situation in the host country, Argentina. A year ago, an international report stated that at least 5,000 political prisoners were being held in that country without official charge. Between 2,000 and 5,000 people disappeared without a trace.
KNVB turned down the AI offer, and so did Captain Rod Kroll. I finally played the World Cup as usual. Even the Netherlands reached the final. For Amnesty International, this truly global campaign has been a huge success, partly due to the massive increase in recognition of its name. For the first time around the world, a major sporting event has been linked with human rights.
However, the 1978 World Cup was not the first time that Amnesty International spoke about the human rights situation because of a sporting event. Ten years ago, the Olympics were held in Mexico, at a time when human rights were severely violated. A few weeks before the opening ceremony, around 300 activists were shot because they were demonstrating against the organization of those games. All survivors received heavy sentences.
In 1968 itself, this link between human rights and a major sporting event was by no means a point of discussion in the international press, but for Amnesty International this was a reason to monitor this development. For example, in 1970 it became clear that at least 120 Mexicans were still in prison, who had been arrested in the 1968 Olympics. Attention was drawn to this through the signature campaign.
Later that year, these political prisoners received extremely harsh sentences – not entirely by chance before the start of the 1970 World Cup, also held in Mexico that violates human rights. “According to Amnesty International, the action against the students may be related to the intention of a group of students in the World Championships to demonstrate against prison since 1968 without trial to more than a hundred others who also demonstrated against the Olympiad.” Thus, one sporting event affected another.
In July 1970, Amnesty International published a black book describing the situation of these detainees in Mexico. Almost two years later, they are still in detention. Only ten of them were sentenced to between three and twenty-five years in prison. Almost every day, the Minister of the Interior arrests his political opponents. Prisons are crowded with farmers, students and workers.
They remained marginal measures, because in both the 1968 Olympic Games and the 1970 FIFA World Cup, few people had a direct connection to the Mexican dictatorship. A lot has changed in those eight years, because in Argentina 1978 we still think about the terrible situation in that country as much as we think about football itself – in part because of Amnesty International.
Likewise, the memory of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will always be in Qatar, regardless of whether or not it takes place: as the event for which thousands of people died to build stadiums, and which were demolished immediately after. So, half a century later, the AI still has a lot of work to do, just like the sports world itself.