Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022: Human rights campaigners say 'the question is what happens after the World Cup?'

When one transgender Qatari woman was arrested on the streets of Doha for “imitating a woman”, she was detained for three weeks without charge.

“Part of the release requirement was attending sessions with a psychologist who ‘would make me a man again,’” she explained.

In the police car, she claims officers beat her until her lips and nose were bleeding and kicked her in the stomach, telling her: “You gays are immoral, so we will be the same to you.”

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Her case, documented by charity Human Rights Watch (HRW) as part of an investigation into human rights’ abuses in Qatar, where the FIFA World Cup is due to be held in just weeks, is not an isolated one – yet comes just days after the tournament organiser wrote to all participants, telling them “now just concentrate on the football”.

The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament.The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament.
The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament.

The letter from FIFA stated football should not be "dragged" into ideological or political "battles" and it should not be "handing out moral lessons". Ten European football associations, including those of England and Wales, have responded to the letter, saying "human rights are universal and apply everywhere".

The choice of the Gulf state to host the tournament has been controversial since it won the right in 2011 to host the World Cup.

Stories of human rights abuses of migrant workers constructing stadiums and infrastructure for the championships itself have sat uneasily alongside more general rights issues, such as officials’ treatment of LGBTQ citizens and visitors – and women’s freedoms. It is estimated more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country in the past ten years – some of them while working on infrastructure under construction for the tournament itself.

A report published by HRW last year found women in Qatar must obtain permission from their male guardians to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs, travel abroad until certain ages, and receive some forms of reproductive health care.

The decision has sparked outrage in the sporting community, amid allegations that Qatar’s bid was rigged.

England captain Harry Kane and nine other captains of European teams will be wearing 'One Love' armbands in peaceful protests against Qatar’s human rights record. Meanwhile, Danish sportswear brand Hummel created three low-profile monochromatic designs – in red, white, and black – for its national team’s World Cup kit.

“We don’t wish to be visible during a tournament that has cost thousands of people their lives,” the brand wrote on Instagram, “We support the Danish national team all the way, but that isn’t the same as supporting Qatar as a host nation.”

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Protesters like 70-year-old Peter Tatchell, who recently was arrested in Qatar for a one-day demonstration in which he held up a placard stating “Qatar arrests, jails & subjects LGBTs to ‘conversion’ #QatarAntiGay”, have urged fans to boycott the event, saying attendance is “colluding with a homophobic, sexist and racist regime”.

The juxtaposition of the needs of Qatari and Middle Eastern values, with those of the Western football fan, is stark – yet is likely to continue well beyond the World Cup. Qatar hopes its hosting will open the nation up to global tourism in a way that could rival neighbour the United Arab Emirates and help it shake off the image of a conservative country. Yet stories like those uncovered by HRW continue to raise red flags for international observers.

Rothna Begum, of HRW, says campaigners have been told by the Qatari authorities that gay fans are not likely to be treated in the same way as locals – but calls for universal reform.

"In terms of fans, what we’re hearing is that these laws won’t apply to them and that they will be safe and welcome and that this is not an issue for them,” she said. “But the people we’re worried about are the Qataris themselves and it's about ensuring that they are able to receive the same level of welcome and protection as the country authorities are saying they will provide to incoming fans and visitors to the country during the World Cup.”

Ms Begum added: "This is a country with a very conservative culture. And it's a conservative culture because the Qatari authorities have pursued a very conservative culture and have enforced very specific kind of norms. It's one of the most restrictive countries in the region.”

During the tournament, organisers are looking at balancing the needs of Western fans for bars and party areas outside of the grounds, with a desire from local visitors for “dry” areas, where they can still enjoy the football.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly came under fire when he said he had spoken to Qatari authorities about gay fans travelling to Qatar – but encouraged UK-based travellers to “be respectful of the home nation” and “flex and compromise” in accordance with Qatar’s “cultural norms”.

"I have spoken to the Qatari authorities in the past about gay football fans going to watch the World Cup and how they will treat our fans and international fans,” Mr Cleverly said in a radio interview in October.

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“They want to make sure that football fans are safe, secure and enjoy themselves, and they know that that means they are going to have to make some compromises in terms of what is an Islamic country with a very different set of cultural norms to our own. One of the things I would say for football fans is, you know, please do be respectful of the host nation.

“They are trying to ensure that people can be themselves and enjoy the football, and I think with a little bit of flex and compromise at both ends, it can be a safe, secure and exciting World Cup.”

Conditions endured by workers in Qatar – the vast majority of them migrant workers – have also been a major issue. Last year, two Norwegian journalists investigating conditions for migrant workers in Qatar were arrested and detained for 36 hours as they tried to leave the country.

Halvor Ekeland, a sports journalist for the public broadcaster NRK, and Lokman Ghorbani, an NRK cameraman, were picked up by police hours after broadcasting a live news bulletin on conditions for labourers working on World Cup venues. Mr Ekeland had told viewers there were “stark contrasts”, with some workers “doing awfully”.

Their investigations came amid years of concerns raised over employments issues from non-payment of wages, to inhumane conditions for some workers constructing buildings for and surrounding the tournament in searing heat.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHHRC) has been tracking cases of alleged abuse of migrant workers across the Gulf countries. The body found during the final year before the World Cup, 112 cases of alleged labour abuse were recorded in Qatar.

These included 85 cases where workers’ conditions of employment were violated, 30 cases where workers reported restrictions on fundamental freedoms, 29 cases where workers cited inhumane or precarious living conditions, and 26 cases where workers reportedly experienced verbal or physical abuse. Workers reported wage theft in 54 cases, while 40 more people said they had had to pay recruitment fees to find a job.

The report said 12 cases had impacted workers building, guarding or otherwise working in relation to the World Cup stadiums; including five cases related to the hosting of the FIFA Club World Cup – a competition that took place in Doha in 2020 as a pre-cursor to this month’s tournament.

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Isabel Archer, Gulf programme manager for the BHHRC, said: “At the moment, in Qatar, the organisers have standards that they require hotels and companies which have contracts for the World Cup to comply with. But a key question for us is, well, what happens after the World Cup? The standards are for the duration of World Cup, but they need to be broadened, they need to be embedded by individual companies to really have a lasting effect.”

Ms Archer warned while hotels and venues in Qatar itself linked to the tournament have signed contracts with FIFA and the organisers to ensure human rights for workers, accommodation providers in nearby Gulf states, such as UAE and even Saudi Arabia, where some people plan to stay and drive from to the matches, do not have to conform to the same rules.

She pointed to huge infrastructure projects undertaken ahead of the World Cup, but which are not directly part of the tournament construction – and therefore are not subject to codes of conduct agreed by FIFA and the championship organisers.

“The World Cup organisers and FIFA have been very careful and keen to talk about their remit and recently expanded their scope to include workers in hotels, but really, the preparations for the World Cup go far, far beyond these projects,” she said.

“Qatar has had to make significant changes, improvements, expansions to its transport networks, the road network, particularly building all of these new hotels. And it was our concern and the concern of other NGOs as well that the abuses suffered by these workers is not being spoken about – but it has come about because World Cup is being hosted in Qatar.”

In a TV interview earlier this month, Qatar’s ambassador to the UK denied the rights of workers were disregarded during the construction of venues for the World Cup. Fahad Bin Mohammed Al-Attiyah said: “We have taken extensive reforms over the years to protect the safety, rights and welfare of all workers. And we have gone so far, so fast, which makes us leaders in the region.”

He said he believed the main legacy from the tournament would be “mutual understanding, dialogue [and] co-operation”, adding: “If you look at the current context, I think tournaments like the World Cup are an opportunity for us to set the button to restart again and see how we can engage with one another.”



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