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Human rights: A moral responsibility of sport governing bodies

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Human rights: A moral responsibility of sport governing bodies

Human rights questions are dismissed by sport governing bodies (SGBs) to avoid discomfort with governments and commercial partners. Yet, SGBs are influential actors, with universal reach and missions of public interest, and failing to act in line with human rights contradicts their core responsibilities as sports organisations.

It is said that sport is not about politics - sport governing bodies (SGBs) dismiss relevant questions to avoid political discomfort with host city governments and potential and current commercial and media partners. However, as private associations with missions of public interest, representing sports of universal reach and which influence both people and governments, SGBs have a social responsibility.  

SGBs are not only mandated to regulate the sport; they also have a responsibility towards the athletes of various age groups, towards the events and hosting communities, especially due to their regular claims of achieving various social objectives, and towards the many stakeholders they mobilise through their activities. 

This is a multidimensional and multi-jurisdictional conversation which involves various stakeholders.. Additionally, this is a multi-layered system, with different levels of influence and co-responsibility - the sport system and its pyramid structure, i.e. ISGBs, NSGBS and other different umbrella organisations; civil society groups and athlete associations, including international governmental organisations, who are not only regulating states obligations but also creating documents such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In this complex ecosystem, it is  important to understand what SGBs' inherent responsibilities as well as their human rights responsibilities are, and how the governance of international sports addresses human rights as a central operational component. 

In the spirit of fostering dialogues and exploring new horizons, SCORE - a Sport Think Action Tank based in Lausanne -  organises SCORE Labs, solutions-oriented meetings held under Chatham House Rules, which address problems and challenges faced by the sports industry, drawing on expertise from within sport and beyond. In recent SCORE Lab sessions, leaders from SGBs gathered in a safe space to clarify the roles and responsibilities of sports stakeholders and to contribute to embedding human rights in the system of sports. 

Although there is a consensual understanding that human rights are a moral responsibility of SGBs, there are challenges, such as the limitations brought by the sport autonomy principle; a focus on organising competitions and events; the limited resources of SGBs (budget and staffing); and the lack of monitoring tools to measure the impact of events, activities, projects. Human rights is simply not centrally addressed in the operations and, when mentioned in legal documents, human rights provisions are vague and allow for a case-by-case approach, according to specific motivations and contingencies.

There have been some good developments in the system and they should be acknowledged and continuously improved. SGBs should embrace responsible autonomy and open up to external expertise - not to legitimise the predisposed positions, but rather to seek remedy and be accountable. SGBs have to use their influencing soft power to act as architects of partnerships and enable and design these partnerships - focusing on the people: athletes, coaches, athletes entourage, officials, workers.

Various pathways can be taken either as a stand alone or as combined solution by organisations - and it can be argued this may trigger a cascading effect:

  • Self-regulation through internal coding aimed at ingraining human rights in the internal processes of SGBs
  • Standardisation by umbrella organisations which transfer these regulations onto their stakeholders
  • Voluntary compliance based on the SGB's own interest to act socially responsible

If sport is recognised as a human right and if SBGs create a narrative claiming their positive influence over society, then sporting activities, projects, events, and their management, should respect and promote human rights. This means progressively embedding human rights in their regulations, and promoting a culture of active participation in society. 

The conversation needs to keep going because sport as a human right should not be a slogan, and sport-washing should not be a policy. Moving forward, some questions to consider include: 

  1. How to address the SGB's wariness of human rights?
  2. How can SGBs develop their capacity to address human rights issues?
  3. What should be the role of third-party expertise?
  4. How can ethics by design be operationalised in SGBs?
  5. Is the IOC the most efficient organisation to lead the human rights agenda in the Olympic Movement?
  6. Should human rights policy be unified within the Olympic Movement through an overarching agency (like anti-doping system)?
  7. Would centralised funding create a conflict of interest for monitoring impact? 


SCORE - Sport Think Action Tank: Independent sport thinkers who aim to support and cooperate with the sports community to SCORE impactful and relevant solutions.


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Monday, August 29, 2022 - 21:48

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