Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 3:31, 21 March 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for securing this important debate. I am honoured to take part alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who gave a very important speech. I share her great concern about women’s sport, including how far we have to go towards equality and the understanding that we can go backwards as well as forwards, which is sometimes forgotten. I also credit the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, for acknowledging having changed his mind; in your Lordships’ House, it is always good to see people’s thinking developing and going forward.

I will go a long way back to a couple of the origins of sporting activity thousands of years ago. One was the ancient Olympics held in honour of Zeus, who, for the ancient Greeks, was the despotic, sexually abusive king of the gods on Mount Olympus. There was the Mesoamerican ball game. Sometimes, positively, it seems to have been used as alternative to war: Topiltzin, the Toltec king, played against three rivals, with the winner getting to rule over the losers. But later in its history, it became associated with human sacrifice and usually decapitation—blood-soaked sport indeed.

I looked up the origins of the term “sportswashing” as we currently use it. It seems to have begun in 2015, when Azerbaijan used the European Games to divert international attention away from human rights in that country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, did, we have to draw a parallel between greenwashing and sportswashing. They both make associations with health, democracy, equality and even environmental action—all positives that are churned up together and supposed to put out something good. But, so often, what we are talking about is a very thin coat over some very nasty things underneath.

It is worth looking at where in the UK the term was first widely used: I think it was probably in 2018, regarding Abu Dhabi, the Manchester City football team and the case of Matthew Hedges, a PhD student who was convicted of spying in the UAE. Eventually, after a great deal of suffering, he was later pardoned.

What we saw was lots of Manchester City supporters coming out to defend the UAE and its record on human rights because they wanted to defend their football team. That is a very interesting example of the way in which sport can be used as a lever and a tool, and Amnesty International was particularly effective in highlighting that at the time.

Closer to the current day, a moment when sportswashing became untenable was when UEFA decided to move the 2022 Champions League final from St Petersburg, President Putin’s hometown. That was after the illegal invasion of Ukraine by the Russian regime, but there had already been extensive sportswashing by what was obviously an authoritarian and internationally aggressive regime. That was at its peak during the 2018 World Cup. The president of FIFA declared at the Kremlin that the world was now “in love” with President Putin—what does that image look like now? Even at the time, it was not hard to see how disturbing that was. Rio Ferdinand and Peter Schmeichel were also at that meeting.

Further back, in Argentina the military junta seized power two years before the 1978 World Cup. When the Argentinian team won the cup, it was seen as a real political boost for the junta that helped to keep it in power.

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar was truly bloodstained and a mark of shame on the so-called beautiful game. In 2010, when Qatar won the right to stage the World Cup, it had only one of the eight stadiums needed. Human Rights Watch reported that to build the rest, and the hotels and roads, more than 2 million migrants were forced to work in sweltering heat and extremely abusive labour conditions. They were abused in the interests of sport—and money, of course, which I will return to. It was reported that at least 6,500 migrant workers died during those 10 years of construction. We are not really that far from the Mesoamerican ball games, are we? This is a country where migrant workers and other residents, should they be LGBTIQA+, face severe repression of their basic human rights, as do many other people. This is despite the fact that in 2016 FIFA signed up to the UN principles on business and human rights, requiring it to

“avoid infringing on the human rights of others”.

The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, spoke extensively about the situation in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. I will not go back over the entire ground that he covered, but it is worth looking at the total list because there has been an explosion of sportswashing by Saudi Arabia. It has spent at least $6.3 billion on sportswashing since 2021—that is 300 sponsorship deals. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and the state-owned oil company—we come back to the link between the environment and sport—have invested in sports such as boxing, racing, football, snooker, golf, ATP tennis, cricket and the America’s Cup regatta, and they are sportswashing what is an increasingly oppressive regime. The regime continues to intervene in Yemen, one of the world’s worst human rights crises, and was responsible for the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I will also briefly revisit—as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, did—the situation of Bahrain, particularly Formula 1. The regime has regularly used the Grand Prix to enhance its image, and over the past two decades, as the noble Lord outlined, there have been numerous human rights violations directly associated with the event itself; we are coming back to bloodstains again.

I raise, as the noble Lord did specifically, the case of Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, son of Hajer Mansoor, and ask the Government what they are doing in that situation. I am aware that it is not directly in the Minister’s portfolio, but none the less, in this context, he must have expected this question. Would the Minister defend the UK ambassador to Bahrain, Alastair Long, on 2 March 2024 releasing a promotional video celebrating 20 years of F1 in Bahrain? He talked of the vision it took from His Majesty and His Royal Highness the Crown Prince and boasted of Bahrain-UK tourism ties, completely ignoring human rights abuses and actively sportswashing the regime. I remind your Lordships’ House that this is the UK ambassador to Bahrain. Does the Minister consider that acceptable?

An obvious part of this debate on sportswashing is the place of boycotts, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. I have to raise the impact of the sports boycott on apartheid South Africa. I very much agree with the noble Lord that the sports boycott was only part of the story, but it was none the less an important part. I have to cross-reference what is generally known as the anti-boycotts Bill that the Government are currently pushing through your Lordships’ House, formally the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, not currently in his place, spoke extremely powerfully at the Second Reading of that Bill. I urge noble Lords who have not read that speech to do so. He also writes in today’s Guardian about the power of sports boycotts and the power of local action when the national Government were failing to take action. As the noble Lord says in the Guardian,

“the British people’s international solidarities often exceed those of our political leaders”.

That does not, however, absolve the Government of taking action. Noble Lords and I have only covered so much; there are so many issues around the place of repressive regimes in British sport today. So I have a direct question to the Minister: what steps will the Government take to ensure that multi-billion-dollar companies based in the UK are not actively engaged in covering up human rights abuses through their sports-related activities, actively sportswashing and making regimes have a more positive appearance? My second question is: what steps will the Government take to ensure Sayed Hashim’s release?

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that sport is only a small part of this story. Finance is a big part of the ways in which repressive regimes have infiltrated our society; they have used elements of our financial sector and other elements of our society to make themselves appear respectable. Since my entry into the House, I have talked about the corruption of the London laundromat, the still partly hidden scandal of golden visas and our role as butler to the world’s kleptocrats and populists. That is a term I have borrowed from the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who gave a speech of that title in your Lordships’ House in February 2022.

It can sometimes seem that sport is small beer in comparison with that wave of corruption that we have invited into the UK—the wave covering up human rights abuses and corruption that has occurred through the City of London and through other British mechanisms. But I come back to the point that the plutocrats and autocrats are people too. They seek acceptance, gilding on tarnished reputations and fake legitimacy, and we have to acknowledge that sport is something that has a very special ability to provide that.