Sport and human rights: An interview with Mary Harvey
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“It has become necessary to do something because there are problems… This should not be acceptable.”

Mary Harvey is the chief executive of the newly established Centre for Sport and Human Rights. Mary has over 15 years’ experience leading worldwide initiatives to achieve societal change and gender equity through sports, and she has held numerous leadership posts within sport governing bodies. She is also a lifelong athlete, having played for the US Women’s National Soccer Team for eight years, and winning the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and Olympic Gold in 1996.

sportanddev caught up with her at the recent Peace and Sport Forum to find out more about the centre’s work and the relationship between sport and human rights.

sportanddev: What would you say are the most important challenges in sport or sport for development and peace today when it comes to human rights?

Mary Harvey: It is important to make the distinction between human rights, sport and sport for development and peace. Human rights in sport is dedicated to ensuring that sports – mega events but also day-to-day sports – do no harm to those that it impacts and optimally leaves a positive legacy that promotes human rights. So they support each other and complement each other but are not the same thing. Sport and human rights is more an approach that sport has an obligation to ensure that people who participate in it are not negatively affected. Unfortunately, we have seen examples of where this has happened.

At the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, we look through the lens of different people – because human rights are about people. There are different groups of people affected: workers (building the stadium, working at hotels, volunteering, making the textiles that will be sold at the event), fans (people attending or watching on television), journalists, sponsors and broadcasters that are covering the event, athletes, and people living in the communities where events will be held. Human rights in sport looks at how to ensure that these groups don’t have their human rights infringed before, during or after these events (such as the FIFA World Cup, cycling events and the Rugby World Cup). Going even further, it’s about how a positive human rights legacy can be left behind after the event.

It has become necessary to do something because there are have been problems, including the health and safety of construction workers - often migrant workers brought to the country hosting the event - and even worker deaths. This should not be acceptable. These should be preventable deaths. Another example is racism and homophobia directed at athletes by fans. Or journalists trying to cover an event but being denied access because the host doesn’t like what they are writing. Or slave labour and human trafficking associated with sporting events. Protection of children in sport is also an enormous area of focus.

sportanddev: What is the work of your centre?

Mary Harvey: As mentioned before, we provide tools to help organisers of sporting events embed human rights into the lifecycle of the event. But we also look at day-to-day sport: we help sport organisations to protect those impacted by their daily activities, especially children.

We have seen high-profile examples where children have not adequately been protected from bad people: such as former gymnastics US national team doctor Larry Nassar who abused countless athletes, or the former president of the Afghanistan Football Federation who horribly abused members of their women’s national team. We’re concerned that the problem is much more widespread than these high-profile cases.

The mindset has to change. When we drop off kids at school, we have a certain expectation that they are safe, that structures are in place so that teachers and administers are not predators; that they have certain credentials. If you take your children to football practice, do you have the same expectations? Yes, you do.

Children are particularly vulnerable, and they need to be protected against bad guys. Beyond steps to prevent it from happening, it’s also critical to have adequate structures in place when abuse occurs. What is the protocol? Is it possible to report it safely? Without reporting, there is no opportunity for remedy, so safe and child-friendly reporting mechanisms are critical. The next step is providing effective remedy to address what happened. Of course, nothing can undo the abuse, but proper remedy is essential.

sportanddev: Why is it important for your centre to be at the Peace and Sport Forum?

Mary Harvey: There are many areas where sport for development and peace intersects with upholding human rights. A lot of the same actors – government bodies, foundations, NGOs, sports bodies – work in both areas. The two complement each other. Also, it helps us to raise awareness that sport for development and peace and human rights have the potential to enhance each other’s work. Being here enables us to raise awareness about the difference, and to connect with sport for development and peace actors, network with them and discover common ground.


Organisational leadership | Education and employment | MEL | Sport for development | Board member RECI


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