Feb 16, 2024
The Need for a Strong Legal Framework to Support Human Rights Commitments in International Sports

International Sports Issues and Development

Sports events bring together billions of people from around the world. This huge audience provides terrorist groups with a global platform on which to broadcast their propaganda and aims.

While some governing bodies and event organizers have made formal human rights commitments, others have not. This article will discuss the need for a stronger legal and regulatory framework to support these commitments.


Globalisation is an incredibly pervasive phenomenon. In a few short centuries primitive pasture games involving balls made of rocks, rags, feathers or hair have become global sports played all over the world and watched by billions on TV. But conventional wisdom suggests that, as sport grows global it becomes more controlled and competitive, disconnected from its local origins.

This is clearly evident in the emergence of global monopolies like FIFA and the IOC, and in the willingness of Western nations to host Olympic games in authoritarian regimes that disregard human rights. However, there is also resistance from below – populist movements that are willing to assert Westphalian sovereignty but reject international norms governing their domestic cultural practices (e.g., the UDHR and ECHR). These challenges from above and below affect the credibility of liberal values that underpin international sports agreements such as the World Anti-Doping Code; the Olympic Charter; the Brighton Plus Helsinki 2014 Declaration on Women and Sport; and the Universal Declaration of Player Rights.

Climate change

Climate change poses significant challenges to sport at every level. It increases the risks of athletes’ health and safety; impacts venues, infrastructure, and weather; and increases costs for spectators and event organizers. It also affects communities, including those most vulnerable to flooding, droughts, and wildfires.

Several studies have assessed the climate impact of sports, but most focus on mega events or elite sport. Fewer studies cover grass-roots or women’s sports, activity in Africa and South America, and global sport (badminton, cricket, tennis, and volleyball). Further research is needed on carbon accounting tools for smaller clubs and active participants; on cobenefits and tradeoffs between mitigation-adaptation efforts; on leveraging geopolitical influence; and on scope for climate change litigation against hosts and sponsors of carbon-intensive events.

Some sports organizations are taking steps to address these issues. For example, Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen uses only clean energy and has a zero-carbon stadium. Other trailblazing teams and venues are implementing a wide range of practices, from using alternative fuels to cutting out single-use plastics.

Human rights

Human rights issues are often linked to major sporting events. These range from the exploitation of construction and hospitality workers, often migrants, to the removal of communities in the run-up to such events. The issue of discrimination against women in sport, as well as transgender athletes, also needs to be addressed.

This is not just about awareness raising; rather, systems-level strategies are required to shift stakeholders’ belief-driven behaviours. Furthermore, access to remedy must be ensured.

For these reasons, many sports organisations should consider integrating a human rights framework into their existing structure. They should also be more clear in their commitments, preferably by adding human rights clauses to their founding documents. In this way, they can show their willingness to be held accountable for any human rights harms that occur during the staging of their events. This will require them to undertake due diligence and to implement robust policy, evaluation and measurement frameworks. It will also require them to ensure that all stakeholders have the right to remedy when they are harmed.

Sport for development

Hundreds of organisations—governmental, non-governmental, corporate, charitable and sport-based—have harnessed the power of sport in relation to international development. They use it for a variety of issues including gender equality, promoting health and (vocational) training, combating HIV/AIDS, preventing violence and trauma counselling, advancing economic development, improving education, environmental protection and peace and conflict resolution.

These efforts can also help to promote the importance of human rights in the context of international sports. Mass sporting events, such as football World Cups and Olympic Games, attract media attention like few others and can steer public discussion towards key development topics.

JSFD is pleased to announce that Adam Cohen, Ph.D., has joined the Editorial team as Co-Editor. He brings a deep commitment to the field and will work tirelessly to further JSFD’s mission. Read his first editorial here. We look forward to his contributions in the future.

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