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Too many legal obstacles to address human rights abuses at mega-sporting events

Published: 01st April 2021 Last updated: 01st April 2021

Virtually every international mega-sporting event comes with human rights abuses. But to hold all contributing actors responsible, parallel proceedings under various legal systems need to be initiated which is highly inefficient and allows for those responsible to escape their responsibility. A shared responsibility approach may be the way forward, as well as a reform of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s Ad Hoc Division for the Olympic Games. That is what international law researcher Daniela Heerdt argues in the PhD dissertation that she will defend on April 9th 2021 at Tilburg University.

In the last two decades, mega-sporting events like the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic and Paralympic Games became more and more linked to adverse human rights impacts. Cases of forced evictions of local communities, violent repressions of protests around sporting venues, or the exploitation of (migrant) workers on event-related construction sites provide just a few examples. Addressing these cases of human rights abuses to establish legal responsibility comes with a number of challenges that originate primarily in the mix of national, international, private and public actors involved, according to Daniela Heerdt.

From diffused responsibility …

Heerdt used the case of forced labor and exploitation of migrant workers on Qatar’s World Cup construction sites as an example, together with the case of forced evictions of residents of Vila Autódromo in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to illustrate the shortcomings of existing legal structures in establishing responsibility. Both cases show that  it is the multiplicity and diversity of the actors involved in organizing and staging mega-sporting events, and thereby also involved in the resulting human rights abuses, which challenges existing legal structures. The more actors are involved, the easier it gets to shift the blame.

In order to hold all contributing actors responsible, parallel proceedings under various legal systems would need to be initiated which does not only create responsibility gaps above but is also highly inefficient. International law in particular falls short because of the state-centric nature of human rights law and the focus on individual and separate responsibility of international law of responsibility. It could even be argued that mega-sporting events are deliberately organized in a way to minimize and, in relation to some actors, even prevent the establishment of legal responsibility.

... to shared responsibility

In order to hold the various actors responsible, Heerdt proposes an approach in which actors involved in MSE delivery from the bidding to the legacy stage would share legal responsibility to the extent that they made a relevant contribution to a single harmful outcome that presents a human rights violation.

This approach would mean a loosening of the state-centric design of international law and a rethinking of the law of responsibility and human rights law in a way that is less bound to a formal breach of an international norm and takes into account the different human rights obligations that actors have under different legal systems. One way to implement a shared responsibility approach might be to formalize cooperation and judicial dialogue between domestic courts and international or regional human rights bodies in a specific case, so that a case of shared responsibility between multiple and diverse actors could be processed as one case instead of separate proceedings. This formalization would also help to provide more legal certainty to the victims of human rights abuses.

In addition, Heerdt argues for a reform of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s Ad Hoc Division for the Olympic Games. However, the feasibility such a reform significantly depends on the willingness of the actors involved, given that consent is the cornerstone of arbitration, which is often misued by those actors that want to stay in control.

Note to editors

Daniela Heerdt’s PhD defense at Tilburg University will take place on 9 April 2021, 13.30 hrs and can be attended via a live stream.  Title thesis: Blurred Lines of Responsibility and Accountability – Human Rights Abuses at Mega-Sporting Events. Supervisor: Prof. N.M.C.P. Jägers, co-supervisors: Dr. D.H. Augenstein, Prof. W.J.M. van Genugten.

A review copy of the thesis can be requested at persvoorlichters@tilburguniversity.edu. Daniela Heerdt can be reached for questions at  d.m.heerdt@tilburguniversity.edu.