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A Reflection on Recent Human Rights Efforts of National Football Associations - By Daniela Heerdt (Tilburg University)

Editor's Note: Daniela Heerdt is a PhD researcher at Tilburg Law School in the Netherlands. Her PhD research deals with the establishment of responsibility and accountability for adverse human rights impacts of mega-sporting events, with a focus on FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games. She published a number of articles on mega-sporting events and human rights, in the International Sports Law Journal, Tilburg Law Review, and the Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights.


In the past couple of years, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) made remarkable steps towards embedding human rights into their practices and policies. These developments have been discussed at length and in detail in this blog and elsewhere, but a short overview at this point is necessary to set the scene. Arguably, most changes were sparked by John Ruggie’s report from 2016, in which he articulated a set of concrete recommendations for FIFA “on what it means for FIFA to embed respect for human rights across its global operations”, using the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) as authoritative standard.[i] As a result, in May 2017, FIFA published a human rights policy, in which it commits to respecting human rights in accordance with the UNGPs, identifies its salient human rights risks, and acknowledges the potential adverse impacts it can have on human rights in general and human rights of people belonging to specific groups. In October 2017, it adopted new bidding regulations requiring bidders to develop a human rights strategy and conduct an independent human rights risk assessment as part of their bid. In March 2017, FIFA also created a Human Rights Advisory Board, which regularly evaluated FIFA’s human rights progress and made recommendations on how FIFA should address human rights issues linked to its activities. The mandate of the Advisory Board expired at the end of last year and the future of this body is unknown at this point.

While some of these steps can be directly connected to the recommendations in the Ruggie report, other recommendations have largely been ignored. One example of the latter and focus of this blog post is the issue of embedding human rights at the level of national football associations. It outlines recent steps taken by the German football association “Deutscher Fussball-Bund” (DFB) and the Dutch football association “Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond” (KNVB) in relation to human rights, and explores to what extent these steps can be regarded as proactive moves by those associations or rather spillover effects from FIFA’s human rights efforts.


Since 2017, DFB runs a working group on the association’s human rights concept. This was triggered by DFB’s application to host the EURO 2024 and the social programs around the 2018 World Cup. In particular, the required human rights strategy for the EURO 2024 application led DFB to adopt a statutory commitment to human rights in 2019. Paragraph 2 of DFB’s Statutes read as follows:

“The DFB takes responsibility for respecting all internationally-recognized human rights and promotes the respect for these rights. It strictly opposes unconstitutional behaviour as well as any form of discriminatory or inhuman attitudes and behaviours. This applies to every form of violence, irrespective of it being of physical or mental nature. The DFB commits in particular to the protection of children and youth from sexual abuse”.[ii]

The human rights strategy for the 2024 tournament has been developed through engaging a variety of stakeholders, including the German Human Rights Institute, the German Olympic Committee and a range of civil society organizations representing the rights of children or fans amongst others. According to the DFB and some of these stakeholders, the strategy builds on and streamlines existing initiatives regarding corporate social responsibility and youth work. The DFB claims that human rights have been part of the DFB’s national and international activities for years, although not framed within recognized human rights standards. Since 2010, its Ethics Code enshrines values such as respect, diversity, integrity, transparency and solidarity in football. Moreover, it promotes projects on participation, integration, fair play, diverse fan cultures, and the prevention of violence and promotion of equality both at grass-roots and elite level sports. This certainly provides a good vantage point for DFB’s human rights efforts. Currently, the DFB is finalizing its human rights policy, and in the meantime, a number of smaller initiative were taken, such as the organization of hearings on the issue of political statements of players in 2020.


Last month, the KNVB announced its support for the adoption of a sport and human rights covenant, similar to the existing agreements on international responsible business conduct. In its announcement, it acknowledges the unique position of sports to promote human rights and highlights the need to use this power also in the context of international tournaments. According to the KNVB, such a covenant would advance collaboration with governments in host countries and help to address issues, promote dialogue and investigation, facilitate the exchange of knowledge and information, and create a level-playing field. Moreover, the KNVB claims that it can help to foster sustainable positive change regarding the human rights situation in host countries and provide players and associations with a responsible manner to participate in international tournaments.

KNVB’s call for a covenant has not been without criticism. Amnesty Netherlands explicitly voiced their concerns regarding the initiative on twitter, welcoming the efforts of KNVB to look at the human rights situation in Qatar in more detail, but opposing the creation of a covenant, for the reason that it would not provide any remedy to migrant workers in Qatar. The hazardous and inhuman working conditions on World Cup-related construction sites have been documented extensively, including in a recent study conducted by Amnesty Netherlands. These reports show that despite legislative changes to Qatar’s labour law, changes on the ground are lacking and additional human rights issues related to the 2022 World Cup, such as the protection of LGBTQI fans remain largely unaddressed. While the KNVB published its point of views on a World Cup in Qatar together with a list of initiatives regarding the tournament, these points and measures are rather broad and do not explicitly address existing human rights risks. An exception is an event planned for this year on human rights and sport events hosted together with the Dutch House of Representatives.

In addition to KNVB’s recent decision to adopt a sport and human rights covenant, a number of existing KNVB initiatives are worth highlighting from a human rights perspective. For instance, the KNVB was one of the football associations pushing FIFA to integrate human rights requirements into bidding regulations for international tournaments. Other examples relate more to the day-to-day business of football, rather than events, such as KNVB’s efforts on promoting diversity and countering racism and other forms of discrimination within the world of Dutch football. While these efforts are clearly linked to human rights standards, they are not framed in a human rights language, nor streamlined under a commitment to human rights.

FIFA’s ‘trickle down effect’ or civil society pressure?

On a global scale, the DFB and KNVB might be the pioneers of national football associations starting concrete efforts to embed human rights into their policies and practices. Clearly, the DFB is a couple of steps ahead of the KNVB, but both associations are committed to in particular addressing human rights issues in host countries of football tournaments. Furthermore, both draw inspiration from the broader business and human rights movement and explicitly reference the respective National Action Plans on business and human rights, which are policy documents adopted by the governments to implement the UNGPs. However, it becomes clear that through focusing on human rights risks related to host countries of international tournaments, the KNVB only reacts to a fraction of the actual human rights risks involved in the world of football.

Nevertheless, both associations are making a start and in order to find ways for encouraging other national football associations to follow suit, it is essential to understand what triggered these recent initiatives and changes. Arguably, there are two possible explanations. The first is that FIFA’s human rights efforts begin to have a trickle down-effect. The need for this has been stressed by Ruggie in his 2016 report. He recommends FIFA to adopt a human rights policy that applies to its relationships with its member associations (Recommendation 1.1) and advises FIFA to use its annual member associations’ conferences to raise awareness on human rights responsibilities of national football associations (Recommendation 4.5). Moreover, he recommends that “FIFA should ensure that the human rights commitment in Article 3 of the FIFA Statutes is mirrored in the requirements of the Standard Statutes for member associations, and is also extended to the requirements for confederations’ statutes at the earliest opportunity” (Recommendation 1.3). While FIFA has not yet adapted the Standard Statutes for member associations, DFB nevertheless decided to mirror FIFA’s statutory human rights commitment in its own Statutes. In fact, when presenting its human rights efforts on its website, the DFB explicitly refers to FIFA’s human rights policy and human rights-related regulations of UEFA.

The second explanation concerns the increasing pressure from civil society in both countries, due to the 2022 World Cup coming closer, but also due to the rise of reports on cases of abuse in the world of football in the past years. In particular the cases of mental, physical, and sexual abuse of female football players on the national team of Afghanistan & Haiti made international headlines, as well as the recent revelations of cases of sexual abuse of young football players in clubs in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. While these types of abuses where not explicitly addressed in Ruggie’s report, it does identify gender discrimination as “endemic human rights challenge” for the world of association football.[iii] Pressure on national football associations arguably also increased through national and regional regulation. Both associations seem to acknowledge the parallels to the broader business and human rights movement, which currently sees a trend of mandatory due diligence laws on national and regional levels. The fact that football is big business, both on a day-to-day basis and when big tournaments are happening is uncontested. Therefore, there is no doubt that the UNGPs’ corporate responsibility to respect human rights applies to national football associations and that the UNGPs provide a good starting point and framework for national football associations to understand and implement their human rights responsibilities.


Obviously, these two explanations are not mutually exclusive and FIFA’s human rights journey plays an important role in the efforts taken by the DFB and the KNVB. Moreover, the importance of Ruggie’s report in 2016 cannot be underestimated. Nevertheless, it seems like some of these recent human rights efforts by national football associations are rather reactive than proactive, following FIFA’s lead and the pressure by civil society on the world of sports more generally. As long as the result would be the same, it should not matter much. That, however, is questionable when it comes to sport and human rights. Reacting to specific issues when they arise can result in a piece-meal approach that might not only be more labour intensive but more importantly is likely to overlook a range of human rights risks related to the world of football and sports more generally. Therefore, a comprehensive approach is key to understanding the human rights risks involved and identifying ways to address these risks.[iv]

The hope is that DFB’s and KNVB’s efforts will develop further and eventually ensure that human rights are fully embedded and respected in the world of (national) football. Very concretely, these efforts can have great potential for the joint bid of these two countries together with Belgium for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, which provides a good opportunity for knowledge exchange between those associations on their human rights efforts.

[i] John G Ruggie, ‘“For the Game. For the World.” - FIFA and Human Rights’ (2016) 4

[ii] Translated by the author. See original source here.

[iii] John G Ruggie, ‘“For the Game. For the World.” - FIFA and Human Rights’ (2016) 24

[iv] Sally Engle Merry, The Seductions of Quantification: Measuring Human Rights, Gender Violence, and Sex Trafficking (The University of Chicago Press 2016) 46; Daniela Heerdt & Nadia Bernaz, Football and Women’s Rights: the Case for Indicators for FIFA’s Feminist Transformation (2020) 34, Jean Monnet Working Paper 5/20.

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