Global Governance, Human Rights and Sports: FIFA Needs to Act Swiftly on North Korea

Many global governance organizations have a checkered track record in dealing with human rights issues, a reflection of the prevalence of human rights abuses by many member countries. An extreme example is the United Nations Human Rights Commission, which, adding to its already discredited nature, elected Libya, Angola and Qatar among others to its Council a couple of months ago.

Despite Libya’s notorious human rights record, it received 155 votes in favor of its membership—easily surpassing the required 97 votes. In fact, not a single country spoke up against Libya’s ascent to the Human Rights Council.

A less extreme example is the challenge faced by the multilateral development aid institutions, such as the World Bank and regional development banks, when it comes to recipient countries’ human rights violations. While such institutions have guidelines to protect property rights in client countries, they are much more ambivalent and more likely to turn a blind eye when it comes to human rights abuses.

This challenge extends to international sports organizations. Let us consider the case of FIFA, the world’s soccer governing body, and North Korea.

Rewind to the recently-concluded World Cup. A month ago Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, was quick to officially react when Nigeria’s president and France’s parliament meddled in the affairs of their respective national soccer associations. Consistent with the monopolistic power it retains, FIFA threatened the French authorities with possible suspension of their squad from international competition if politicians continued their inquiry into the team’s poor performance at the South Africa World Cup. Similarly, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan retracted his plan to ban the team from international soccer games for two years, following corruption allegations and a poor performance at the World Cup, when FIFA threatened to suspend the national team and their under-20 women’s squad from future international competitions.

It is up for debate whether FIFA should retain such vast powers over soccer matters within countries, particularly since the sport has major political and commercial ramifications. But, even if FIFA’s interventions may be salutary when they reverse ill-advised political decisions, such interventions ultimately constitute a challenge to the sovereignty of member countries.

And, regardless of whether FIFA’s power to suspend countries from international competition for domestic political influence is considered legitimate, the organization should at least be expected to apply its rules to all countries with similar standards, aiming at a level playing field.

FIFA was quick to publicly condemn the political interference in France and Nigeria this year, and has in the past suspended Greece and issued strong warnings to Poland and Portugal over similar interferences. In contrast, Blatter and FIFA’s lengthy silence is deafening regarding the blatant abuses against the North Korea’s soccer coach and players by the government (click here for details).

There are already serious concerns regarding the safety of the national coach who has been sent to work at a construction site after being expelled from the party. The coach was also demoted and chastised in the most humiliating and public manger when players were forced to make very public Stalinist “confessions” to incriminate the coach. These actions are just an extension of the well known human rights abuse practices of North Korea’s totalitarian regime. Based on the Worldwide Governance Indicators, North Korea is the worst-governed country in the world.

If FIFA nearly suspended Nigeria and France for political interference, it should obviously suspend North Korea for its human rights abuses. Yet, FIFA has yet to even issue a formal statement, while it merely continues to quietly study the situation. Such a delay and silence raise questions about FIFA’s motivation for interference. Why is the organization more reticent to act in the case of human rights abuse against soccer players and coaches by a totalitarian regime than in the case of a political debate in a democracy where FIFA has vast commercial interests and/or political power at stake? Such double standard is unjustifiable, raising questions about FIFA’s own governance and motivations. FIFA ought to act resolutely now on North Korea’s abuses, without further delays.

At a broader level, the ongoing North Korean saga shines a spotlight on the dangers of professional sports under totalitarian regimes. Greater attention ought to be paid to the national sports system and its effect on the lives of the talented athletes whose lives are often tightly controlled and made to compete in a highly politicized environment. These athletes need to be better protected against abuse (or worse) when they fail to perform up to the expectations of their authoritarian leaders, as in the case of North Korea.

International sports organizations such as the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and FIFA should have stricter sanctions for flagrant political abuses in countries like North Korea (and about a dozen other such misgoverned countries) than for political debates about the performance of national teams in vibrant democracies like France. FIFA has a chance to start the process of reversing its tarnished image on this and other corporate governance dimensions by taking a tough stance on North Korea and a handful of other totalitarian states where athletes are subject to abuse.