Human Rights Council Speaks Up for Athletes’ Rights in Wake of Surging Abuses

UN Body reminds world sport that international human rights standards and principles apply to athletes

Last week, the world’s peak inter-governmental body for promoting and protecting human rights addressed the issue of athletes’ rights and interests for the first time in its resolution on “Promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal”. The World Players Association, the leading voice of organised athletes in the governance of world sport, welcomes the Council’s resolution, which lends further focus on the need for multi-stakeholder engagement and relevant international standards and principles in protecting the interests and rights of athletes:

Recalling that the General Assembly supported the independence and autonomy of sport and the mission of the International Olympic Committee in leading the Olympic movement, and of the International Paralympic Committee in leading the Paralympic movement, and noting that they, as well as other relevant stakeholders, also have a role in protecting the interests and rights of athletes and the integrity of sport in accordance with the Olympic Charter, the International Paralympic Committee Code of Ethics and other relevant international standards and principles, (emphasis added)

As the resolution notes, involving relevant stakeholders — including the legitimate representatives of organised athletes, as well as recognised experts on the rights of children, women, minority groups, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized individuals who practice sport — is now the accepted norm in the governance of world sport. This, of course, resonates with the multi-year collective effort to establish an Independent Centre for Sport and Human Rights expected to launch later this year, in which World Players has been deeply engaged alongside major sports governing bodies, governments, trade unions, NGOs, corporate sponsors and broadcasters, and international organisations — including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Labour Organization, and UNICEF.

By highlighting the need for the protection of athletes rights to accord with relevant international standards and principles, the resolution affirms that the Olympic Charter and other sports bodies’ governing documents do not supersede internationally-recognised human rights, including those enumerated in the documents for which the Human Rights Council is the chief custodian, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In December 2017, the World Players Association addressed the need for a comprehensive articulation of athletes’ rights with the Universal Declaration of Player Rights. Backed by the more than 100 player associations united under the World Players banner — representing over 85,000 men and women professional athletes across 60+ countries and 17 different sports — the UDPR provides a set of benchmarks for respecting and upholding the fundamental rights of athletes for international sports bodies to meet.

It was timely and necessary for the Council to speak out on behalf of athletes at this moment, given the successive crises involving athletes, many of them children and other vulnerable groups, such as the sexual abuse lawsuits against USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and the US Olympic Committee, the substandard working conditions in professional women’s football, and other documented potential risks and actual human rights harms in sport. These scandals are widely seen as just the tip of the iceberg and symptoms of systemic shortcomings in allowing the sports bodies to police themselves. Thus, while the resolution acknowledges that the Olympic Charter has a role to play in safeguarding the rights and interests of athletes and the integrity of sport, it clearly indicates that this is not a unilateral role and that the Charter is insufficient until it conforms to relevant international standards and principles.

The Council has effectively put sports bodies on notice, reminding them of their responsibilities to respect human rights and warning them that governments have a role in holding sports bodies accountable in accordance with the state duty to protect human rights under international law. These complementary roles were also reflected in the general statement by the United States Government during the Council’s discussion of the resolution. Such decrees dispel the notion that the autonomy of sport may be used to diminish the human rights and labour rights of athletes — a breakthrough for the arena of sports law, which has been silent on the question of athletes’ rights.

World Players notes that the resolution commits the Council to convene a panel on promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal every four years, in the session preceding the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the organised athletes movement looks forward to engaging in the planned first convening at the Council’s session in June 2020 ahead of the Summer Games in Tokyo. The next two years will be critical in determining whether the human rights commitments by FIFA, UEFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the Commonwealth Games Federation — including in the Sporting Chance Principles — yield positive outcomes for the people most affected by the delivery of sport. The Council will have a lot of new developments to consider when they next deliberate on this topic.

BACKGROUND: The resolution on “Promoting human rights through sport and the Olympic ideal” adopted by the Human Rights Council during its 37th session marked the fourth time the recurring resolution has run since 2011, as part of a biannual discussion by the Council on how sport can serve as a force for good in society. The group of state co-sponsors is typically led by the Government of Greece and includes states that have recently hosted or will soon host the Olympic and Paralympic Summer or Winter Games. World Players hopes that going forward the Governments of Greece, Japan, China, France, the United States, and others that may be selected as future hosts of the Games will incorporate meaningful stakeholder engagement on the resolution with the people who are most affected by human rights risks associated with the delivery of sport, including organised athletes.

Video of Human Rights Council adoption of Draft Resolution A/HRC/37/L.31

For information, contact Gigi Alford at