Few things in life compare to the rush of a good sports game. Whether you’re celebrating a win for your favorite team or throwing a ball around with friends, sports have a unique way of uniting people around the world.
The lessons we encounter in sports will stay with us throughout our lifetimes; we learn to play by the rules, respect our opponents, and end every match with a handshake or high five. For these reasons and more, making sports a safe, inclusive, and equitable environment for everyone should be a natural step in advancing human rights standards around the world — and, finally, we’re making progress.
Global Citizen recently caught up with the Centre for Sport and Human Rights about how they’re partnering with sporting bodies and others to tackle inequities in sports. As we enter a landmark year for human rights — the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR) — the organization is launching an initiative to promote human rights on an international stage.
‘The 75’ campaign, which launches on September 26, will invite 75 athletes from around the world to share why human rights matter to them on social media over the 75 days leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10.
“In the world of sports, athletes hold a remarkable ability to transcend boundaries, connect with people, and unite individuals worldwide,” Mary Harvey, chief executive of the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, said of the campaign.
“When athletes become the champions of freedom, equality, and justice for all, and explain what human rights mean in practice, this somewhat complex term becomes accessible and easy to understand for fans around the world. And we all get inspired to support the cause of human rights in our daily lives, making it more than a declaration but a living reality."
Outside of promoting the ideas of freedom, equality, and justice for all, the organization is also working to further integrate sports with a more robust human rights framework that touches every aspect of a mega-sporting event — from building stadiums through fair labor practices to engaging athletes and fans on issues of gender inequality.
How Can Sports Advance Human Rights?
Some people may consider sports to be an escape from everyday issues plaguing the world and balk at the idea of using them as a platform for social change. As a human rights organization, the Centre for Sport and Human Rights takes issue with that line of thinking.
“It’s important to challenge the notion that sports are somehow separate from society,” William Rook, deputy chief executive for the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, told Global Citizen. “On the contrary, sports and human rights already coexist. We need to leverage the power of sports more than ever to promote universal values, and that means ensuring sports itself is a responsible sector.”
According to a 2022 report from the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, last year’s mega-sporting events saw “unprecedented international scrutiny.” Between the Chinese government’s alleged attempts to “sportswash” its crimes against Uyghur Muslims ahead of the 2022 Olympic Winter and Paralympic Games in Beijing to Iran’s discriminatory ban preventing female spectators and journalists from attending sports matches, it’s clear that many human rights issues are already affecting the world of sports.
Dismissing that connection does nothing to solve these problems; recognizing the value of sports in engaging people around the world can not only bring important human rights topics to an international stage, but also improve sports themselves.
“Sports are already a great thing,” Rook said. “Making sure they are safe and inclusive environments for everyone to participate in can only make them better. Going further, we should be enabling the sports industry to become leaders in promoting human rights beyond the field of play.”
Spotlighting Human Rights on a Global Stage
To ensure the games we love are no longer accessories to human rights abuses and marred in controversy, some international sporting bodies have partnered with the Centre for Sport and Human Rights to integrate human rights standards into their policies, processes, and operations.
Ensuring equitable opportunities for women in sports — such as equal pay, access to facilities, and media representation — relates to the wider issues of gender inequality for non-athletes around the world. Athletes part of the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup, for example, wore arm brands with taglines like “Unite for Gender Equality” and “Unite to End Violence Against Women” as a way to spotlight these topics and engage viewers on important human rights issues.
Any positive efforts to expand human rights awareness may have been overshadowed by the non-consensual kiss between the former-president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation and a Spanish player after Spain won the World Cup. Despite accountability efforts and important, ongoing conversations about gender-based harassment in and out of sports, there’s still more work to do to guarantee human rights for everyone.
The FIFA Women's World Cup also promoted engagement with First Nations and Māori communities. In addition to inviting Indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand to host welcome ceremonies for visiting delegations, the tournament flew Indigenous flags at stadiums and held pre-game ceremonies performed ahead of each match.
As human rights conversations and engagement continue in sports, Indigenous leaders are hoping for more commitment from international sporting bodies to ensure Indigenous communities and cultures are represented in future sporting events.
Building Safe, Inclusive, and Equitable Sporting Events
Improving the legacy of major sporting events is top of mind for the Centre for Sport and Human Rights. In preparation for the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup in North America, the organization is taking note of how one of the most-watched global sports competitions in the world can respect everyone involved, even if world leaders ignore international standards for human rights.
“It’s really about having a systemic approach to make sure human rights are embedded throughout the process of a mega-sporting event,” Harvey told Global Citizen. “We use the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as our main framework, which includes doing a human rights risks assessment, consulting affected groups, taking measures to prevent, mitigate and remedy human rights issues, monitoring and adjusting such measures over time, and communicating results in an accessible and transparent way.”
As cities across North America submit bids for the right to host one of the World Cup matches, one of the deciding factors is the human rights profile of each city.
From looking at harmful state-wide legislation that discriminates against transgender people to a nation’s legacy of mistreatment against Indigenous peoples, the Centre for Sport and Human Rights analyzes how employees, delegations, journalists, fans, and others who take part in the World Cup will be affected by a match’s physical location to ensure their human rights are respected and assured.
“These global events present an opportunity to bring in international standards for human rights,” Rook said. “We don’t want to just think about making a single, good event. It’s about transforming institutions, policies, practices, and legislation so that [the legacy of sports] will last for generations.”
How Global Citizens Can Get Involved
The process of integrating sports and human rights has been slowly taking place for years, but for Harvey and others at the Centre for Sport and Human Rights, 2023 feels different. More conversations and partnerships are spotlighting the need for better processes and standards, which are now influencing future sporting events.
“This year is particularly important because of the 75th anniversary of the UDHR,” Harvey told Global Citizen. “We have to think about what we want for human rights over the next 25 years, and how sports can be an ally in that.”
Global Citizens can follow the organization's ‘The 75’ campaign’ on social media to learn more about the growing integration between sports and human rights. Over the next few months, athletes from around the world will share how they advocate for important human rights issues on and off the field.
"The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as important today as it was 75 years ago. I joined this campaign to show how we can all work together to improve the conditions of our fellow humans around the world,” Desirèe Henry, a sprinter and Olympic medalist from the UK, said. “Sport is a fantastic way to bring people together and I’m proud to support the Centre for Sport and Human Rights."
In addition, Global Citizens can be an ally in advancing human rights by challenging the sports they love to embrace best practices and demonstrate leadership on social issues.
The Centre for Sport and Human Rights has various tools and guides available, including on child rights, for fans, and for sports organizations looking to embed human rights in their governance. Their newly-launched Global Sport and Human Rights Academy will also shortly publish an introductory ‘Sport and Human Rights 101’ course, which is a freely-available resource to learn more about the connections between sports and human rights.
Global Citizens can also contribute to a consultation that the Centre for Sport and Human Rights has launched with BBC StoryWorks to develop a new web series on the integration of sports and human rights.