Human Rights: Sportswashing - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:41 pm ar 21 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 2:41, 21 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, I am delighted to open this debate on a very important yet often overlooked issue: sportswashing. We all know the positive power that sport has in bringing people together, the pride and enthusiasm, self-development, building resilience, fostering team spirit and promoting the best of what it is to be human. But beyond all this is a practice that operates in the shadows—sportswashing.

In framing this debate, I wish to be clear about what my focus on sportswashing is. It is a political decision by some Governments to use sports events, teams or individuals to divert attention from their controversial actions, human rights abuses or political agendas. Essentially, it is a form of reputation laundering through the world of sport.

How is this practice employed? One of the most common tactics is for countries with tarnished images to build for then host major sporting events. These events attract global attention, providing an opportunity for Governments to present positive imaging while diverting attention away from issues such as political repression, corruption or human rights abuses. Government bodies also invest heavily in high-profile sports clubs to enhance the investor’s global image; we see that with Saudi Arabia and Newcastle United, and also with McLaren and the Bahrain sovereign fund. It is a real concern for some in football and F1 that foreign states could be investing in and using UK-based sporting teams to sportswash their human rights record at home. Another strategy involves signing athletes to promote a positive image; we all remember seeing David Beckham at the Qatar World Cup.

There is nothing new about this; we can trace sportswashing back, although the term came about in 2015. One only has to look at fascist Italy’s 1934 World Cup and the Nazis’ 1936 Olympic Games to see sportswashing in practice. Recently, we have seen sportswashing Olympics held in China and Russia; Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, hosting F1 races; and Qatar holding the recent World Cup.

It has gained much more prominence recently. The dilution of news outlets has made it harder to get one unified and consistent message out to large worldwide audiences but major international sporting events still grab attention and get global focus in a way that few other platforms can. States run by autocrats or royal dynasties, which have poor human rights records or lack respect for normal democratic values, are the ones that have proved themselves the best practitioners. China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain have become famous for it.

For example, Saudi Arabia’s total investment since 2021 in trying to improve its image via sport is around £4.9 billion, which is almost the equivalent of the GDP of Barbados. The Bahraini authorities have reportedly signed a new deal with F1, running through to 2036, which costs £41 million each year to stage F1 races there. Most, if not all, of this money is handed over to sporting ruling bodies, such as FIFA and F1, which are private bodies and rely on these massive sums, and make the individuals who run them very wealthy.

Some say it is important to allow these countries to host such sporting events as it brings about change. The last time we heard that was from Gary Neville, who was paid to be a TV pundit at the Qatar World Cup. Did sustainable and real change from the FIFA World Cup come to LGBT+ people in Qatar? No, the money was paid over to FIFA and sportswashing happened. There was no improvement in human rights for the LGBT community there. It is clear that sustainable change does not happen when sporting events are held in states such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. In fact, things get worse when controlling sporting bodies, autocrats and ruling royal families refuse to accept that human rights abuses even happen, some linked to the sporting events themselves. I am sure that many noble Lords will remember FIFA banning the OneLove armband in Qatar.

Others argue that sport is sport and politics should not be brought into sport. Many agree, but let us be clear why sport and politics are colliding. It is not because of those who are pointing out that sportswashing exists. It is because political decisions are being made by autocrats and ruling royal families to invest in sport events to turn the spotlight away from their record on human rights and democratic abuses. The investment in sportswashing is a political act, so those who say “No politics in sport” should support calls to deal with this political practice of sportswashing through tighter rules and regulations for sporting bodies, teams and clubs.

I turn to one in-depth example of sportswashing: F1 racing in Bahrain, an issue that I have seen close up since 2018. I declare an interest as the vice-chair of the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. I got involved when the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, which I thank for its helpful briefings for today’s debate, brought to my attention the case of Najah Yusuf, who in 2017 was arrested, sexually assaulted, tortured and falsely sentenced to three years in prison after she made a stand on social media against sportswashing and the 2017 Bahrain F1 race. The interesting fact about Najah’s case is that, in the court ruling, the court referenced the F1 race and her activism against it on social media as one of the reasons for her sentence—a direct link between F1 racing in Bahrain and the sentencing of an individual standing up for human rights and against sportswashing. Due to international pressure, she was released early. I have since met Najah. She told me of the soul-destroying, continuing abuses that she and her family have received from the Bahraini authorities for standing up to F1 sportswashing in her country. This includes, but is not restricted to, her losing her civil service job and the police continually harassing her family.

Last year four individuals were arrested, threatened, verbally abused and forced to sign a plea restricting their right to protest in future after they held a protest near the Bahrain International Circuit during the F1 race. This was despite F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali’s assurances that

“individuals should be allowed to protest against and criticise our event without intimidation or reprisals”.

When asked about the arrests, F1 reiterated a false statement by the Bahraini Government denying their occurrence. It still failed to acknowledge that these arrests took place and to correct the record on F1’s website, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary after the Bahraini authorities were forced to concede that these events had indeed taken place.

These four Bahraini citizens were subject to further reprisal and harassment this year, ahead of the F1 race. Two of the protesters, Hajer Mansoor and Muneer Mushaima, had their family houses raided. The other two, Najah Yusuf and Ali Muhana, received police summonses. Hajer Mansoor’s son has been arrested without a warrant. This 20 year-old young man, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, was arrested after a house raid last month and has subsequently been tortured and interrogated while blindfolded, without the presence of his lawyer, on allegations of participating in unauthorised protest. It is clear that his arrest was strategically timed to coincide with the F1 testing, and that his detention was extended in the lead-up to the race for political reasons—namely, to silence all protest surrounding the Bahrain Grand Prix.

I have made repeated requests over the last few years to engage with Mr Domenicali, the CEO of F1, to discuss potential human rights issues linked to his races, and the lack of due diligence carried out by F1 on where they race. In the last month I have personally reached out to him on two occasions to ask him to intervene, due to the nature and timing of Mr AlWadaei’s arrest, as it appears to be linked and timed to deter F1 protests in Bahrain. Unfortunately, a familiar pattern has emerged: Mr Domenicali has not even acknowledged my letters and emails, and has refused any discussion or engagement with me or any other organisation with expertise in human rights abuses in Bahrain when these abuses, and a potential link between these events and F1, have been brought to his attention.

Mr Domenicali’s arrogance, lack of professionalism and non-engagement left me with no alternative but to seek this debate, and to seek further regulation of the practices of F1 and other such sporting bodies based here in the UK. His leadership of F1 is damaging the reputation of his sport, as he refuses to engage with the issues around F1 and human rights. He thinks he can just receive the reported £574 million from the Bahrain authorities up to 2036 that makes him and his organisation richer, while having nothing to do with the real issues that his sport is helping to cloak in Bahrain.

As I said, this is a pattern of the senior leadership in F1, based here in London. Since 2018 I have brought attention to individual and systematic cases of human rights abuses linked to F1 races in the Gulf. F1 has never acknowledged the link—even in the case of Najah. When the court specifically linked her sentence to the criticism of the F1 race in Bahrain, F1 said that no link existed. I was granted a meeting with F1’s senior leaders back in 2018, but they have allowed no further direct contact and I have seen fellow parliamentarians ignored when they have raised potential issues around F1 racing and human rights abuses. On one occasion there was an outright refusal to meet me over F1’s human rights policy. Thank goodness for drivers such as Sir Lewis Hamilton, who has had the courage to say that human rights issues are around and that he is not convinced that F1 going to countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia helps change happen.

My recent contact, via a letter to Mr Domenicali on 14 February and a reminder on 11 March, was an attempt to collaboratively explore with him his comments that F1 is “a force for good” in these countries and can bring about a slow and quiet change. I asked him to show me the evidence, the due diligence done, the results from these investigations and the expert human rights organisations that F1 meets. Again, I did not get an acknowledgment of these letters. It is as though he fears the evidence coming before the public. What is the F1 leadership hiding? What do the evidence and due diligence show, if indeed they are being done at all?

What was even more galling was to see the British ambassador to Bahrain, Mr Long—while I was seeking reassurance on due diligence around human rights issues— posting on social media, helping to promote the Bahrain Grand Prix and endorsing Mr Domenicali’s approach, without acknowledging the issues of human rights abuses potentially linked to F1 races there.

I have four questions for the Minister. First, what is the Government’s view of sportswashing, does his department have a working definition of it and does it plan to adopt the policy of the Government on the issue? Secondly, will the Government make representations regarding the arrest of the 20 year-old Bahraini, Sayed Hashim AlWadaei, during F1 testing this year, and will they try to make a determination about the links of his arrest to F1?

Thirdly, will the new Bill on football regulation that is in front of Parliament include rules and obligations around foreign state ownership of clubs and teams here in the UK, as the Government have just agreed to do around press ownership? If so, will these rules and regulations be extended to UK foreign-supporting companies and bodies, such as Formula 1, to ensure that they carry out proper due diligence, including engaging on issues related to human rights violations?

Fourthly, despite repeated concerns raised directly with the UK Government and the ambassador in Bahrain about the use of sportswashing and abuses linked to F1, including by many Members of Parliament and rights groups, why has the UK ambassador to Bahrain chosen actively to facilitate a race that has links to human rights abuses? What steps will the Government take to ensure that British diplomats take seriously concerns raised about human rights violations and are seen not to potentially aid sportswashing?

I look forward to listening to the contributions of other noble Lords, and I beg to move.