Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 21 March 2024.

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Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 4:02, 21 March 2024

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, is to be heartily congratulated this afternoon on bringing forward this topic for debate. I am not sure what hotline he has to the heart of government, but his foresight in choosing this issue for this week—the week in which the Government plucked up the courage to publish their football regulation Bill—is to be admired. Like me, he sees the opportunity with the football regulation Bill to make a stand on sportswashing—the noble Lord, Lord Addington, has advertised the point well—and to try to set a high bar, not just nationally but internationally.

This afternoon’s debate has been fascinating, with a broad range of views, from the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, through to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, with his nuanced take on how best to tackle sportswashing and achieve change and improvements in human rights. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, largely echoed his take on how we make more inclusive international events such as the Olympics and the Paralympics. I personally found her take on politics in sport not just realistic but insightful and fascinating. I was particularly drawn to, and enjoyed, the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward; they were not just thoughtful and illuminating but very revealing too. I had not included any points in my comments about sponsorship, as noble Lords will hear, but that was a well-made argument, and one that we should reflect more on when we look at some of the issues associated with sportswashing in the future.

As pretty much all noble Lord have said, sportswashing is nothing new. As long as there have been international competitions between competing nations, an element of sportswashing has always been present. The fascist states of Italy and Germany made ruthless use of sporting events, notably football and the Olympics, to project themselves to the wider world. Of course, the 1936 Berlin Olympics was the most obvious and probably the largest example. I particularly enjoyed the fulsome and witty explanation of all of that from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. In more recent decades, the practice has become more subtle—but arguably not that much more subtle.

What do we mean by the term “sportswashing”? The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, gave his definition and academics have tried to define the idea. Jonathan Grix perhaps nailed it when he wrote that it had become

“a short-hand way of criticising (usually) non-democratic regimes or large corporations for using investment in world-renowned athletes, sports clubs, and sports events to detract from illiberal, non-democratic, and/or exploitative practices in their home countries or businesses”.

As the House of Lord’s Library note says, the term has been applied to hosting large events such as the Olympics and Paralympics or the World Cup, setting up new facilities, sports infrastructure and domestic competitions, investment in teams and leagues internationally, usually through sovereign wealth funds, the sponsorship of teams or tournaments by state-associated bodies such as tourism departments and national airlines and, of course and in particular, engaging well-known international sportspeople in ambassadorial roles for new leagues and bodies.

Many commentators have observed that states getting involved in support, direct sponsorship and other forms of sports-related alignment provides endless opportunities for soft power and reputational enhancement. The opportunities for promoting a positive image of the states themselves and increasing their status and credibility are limitless. From Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008, via the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018, the pattern is the same.

In recent years, more attention has, as we have heard, focused on the Gulf states. The noble Lord, Lord Scriven, made a good job of displaying exactly how Bahrain is operated, but also Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. The expansion of Formula 1 is an interesting case study in this regard. The Bahrain grand prix has been running for two decades and has been joined on the calendar by races in Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A BBC estimate suggests that Saudi Arabia has invested some £5 billion in sport since 2021. As well as F1, there have been major investments in events such as boxing, the LIV golf series, the ATP tennis championships and the America’s Cup regatta. In recent times, we have seen the takeover of Newcastle United, and the state’s interest in football seems more to be more widespread, with reports that the country is seeking the rights to the 2034 FIFA World Cup and, interestingly, the 2035 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In the case of the latter, it is worth noting that the growth of the women’s game in Saudi Arabia is both very recent and limited by international comparison.

Of course, elite sport can contribute to economic growth. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman argued in September last year:

“If sportswashing increases my GDP by 1% then I will continue doing sportswashing”.

It could not be more blatant than that. The Sports Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al Saud, explained to the BBC that accusations of sportswashing were “shallow”. On human rights, he said:

“Any country has room for improvement, no one’s perfect”.

He added that

“these events help us reform to a better future for everyone”.

There is little doubt that the Saudi states sees being a player across many different sports, in particular football, as a form of soft power. We in this Chamber often talk about the notion of soft power and the influence that UK institutions can wield through the BBC, the British Council and our aid budget, but these are by comparison benign interventions designed to promote liberal and democratic values. They are not designed primarily to advance solely economic interests or to provide cover for human rights abuses or unregulated workplace practices such as those reported widely during the construction of football stadia for the Qatar World Cup. In that context, yesterday’s report in the Guardian about emerging evidence of similar construction-related deaths in Saudi is very worrying indeed and I think should be reflected in action from FIFA as football’s governing body.

What should be the approach of government to states that use the power of sport to impact upon reputation, international standing, trade and much more? First, we should encourage greater transparency. For example, FIFA should be more open in its dealings with any nation seeking to host a future World Cup. This means that there can be no allegations of corruption surrounding the awarding process, and the adoption of a zero-tolerance approach towards human rights abuse claims. The bidding process should not be used to excuse poor human rights records. For example, if Saudi Arabia is to play host, the Saudi Sports Minister should be held to his words about events being a driver towards genuine and verifiable reform on human rights and much else.

Secondly, we must make it plain internationally that sport—and, in particular, football in this instance—is sport for all. Labour has long believed in sport for all. Our vision is of sports being not just of interest at elite levels but inclusive and participative, so that we can all play our part, and play a role—this, after all, was the motif for the London Olympics of 2012. As we have seen, for many countries, from Afghanistan to the Gulf states, this is an issue. So we should be using our version of soft power to influence Governments who seek to use their wealth to promote strategic investments in sport for less altruistic purposes.

A Labour Government would seek to use their influence to promote human rights and tackle abuses such as those experienced by construction workers in Qatar. Equally, we would wish that influence to stop the abuse of LGBT+ fans and the discrimination that women suffer. In football, we take the view that FIFA should put its house in order. Ahead of the 2034 World Cup, the next 10 years should be used constructively to tackle the issues that emerged during the Qatar event. FIFA should show some leadership and work with its partners to bring change.

In this context, the welcome publication—finally—of the Government’s Football Governance Bill could be used constructively to set a high bar in football regulation that shows what can be done to tackle a myriad of regulatory issues, starting with financial fair play and fairer competition. One important objective of the moves towards football regulation was to give fans a bigger say in the governance of football and put them very much at the heart of the game. We should look to extrapolate that example elsewhere, and use that power to change attitudes nationally and internationally.

I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to this highly significant and well-timed debate. Will the Minister use his time to say a little about how His Majesty’s Government see the regulation of our nation’s number one obsession, football, as a way forward to improve not just governance but other related matters in the culture of the game? Can he also set out the Government’s approach to ensuring higher standards around human rights, LGBT+ rights and workers’ rights in the context of future World Cup bids, and international sports events more generally? Perhaps he could be tempted to reference any discussions that he and other Ministers have had with FIFA and other international sporting bodies to ensure that there are far higher standards for countries bidding to host the World Cup and other similar international events.

This has been a valuable debate, and one that, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, will probably prefigure similar debates during the passage of the football regulation Bill in the future. I have greatly enjoyed, and been fascinated by, the compelling, wide and varied contributions.