Rasha Younes is an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In November the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup opens in Qatar, a country that represses the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and punishes same-sex relations with up to seven years in prison.
The soccer governing body, FIFA, knew this in 2010, when it awarded Qatar the football tournament, one of the world’s most widely viewed sporting events. FIFA’s own governing statutes, in force at the time, ban LGBT discrimination of the kind Qatar enshrines in its national laws, and FIFA’s due diligence to enforce its own policies around the world has been ineffective.
In 2016, FIFA adopted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require it to “avoid infringing on the human rights of others and … address adverse human rights impacts.” It requires FIFA to take adequate measures for the “prevention, mitigation, and remediation” of human rights impacts.
To meet this responsibility for the Qatar World Cup, FIFA should have introduced concrete policies and a human rights due diligence process with regular reporting. But less than five months ahead of the football tournament, and despite FIFA’s recent celebration of Pride month, it is clear that it is failing to live up to its promises.
In March, an international coalition of groups noted FIFA’s and Qatar’s lack of progress in implementing civil society recommendations on LGBT rights made to the country’s Supreme Committee, including legal reform and free expression guarantees.
But despite Qatar’s dismal human rights record, including around the rights of migrant workers, severe restrictions on free expression and peaceful assembly, state policies that discriminate and facilitate violence against women, and a repressive environment against LGBT residents and visitors, Qatar remains the tournament host and has not changed its ways.
In 2020, Qatar assured prospective visitors that the kingdom will welcome LGBT visitors and that fans will be free to fly the rainbow flag at the games. But it begged the question: what about the rights of LGBT residents of Qatar?
Suggestions that Qatar should make an exception for outsiders are implicit reminders that Qatari authorities do not believe that its LGBT residents deserve basic rights. It risks erasing the repressive reality of LGBT residents of Qatar.
On May 20, at a news conference in Berlin, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, responded to a question about the rights of LGBT visitors by repeating that, “We [Qatar] welcome everybody, but we also expect and want people to respect our culture.”
Qatar’s steady reference to “culture” to deny LGBT people’s rights deflects responsibility away from abusive state systems. Culture should not be used as a cover for discourse, practices, and legislation that have effectively excluded content related to sexual orientation and gender identity from the public sphere.
Qatari authorities censor mainstream media related to sexual orientation and gender identity. And people who have experienced government repression have told us that the government surveils and arrests LGBT people based on their online activity.
In April, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, a senior Interior Ministry official overseeing security for the football tournament, said that rainbow flags may be confiscated from prospective visitors “for their protection.” Mr. Al Ansari added: “Reserve the room together, sleep together – this is something that’s not in our concern.”
It certainly should be a concern. A recent survey by a Scandinavian media group showed that 3 of the 69 hotels on FIFA’s official list of recommended accommodations would deny entry to same-sex couples. It found that only 33 did not object to booking same-sex couples, while 20 others said that “they would accommodate same-sex couples as long as they did not publicly show that they were gay.” FIFA responded, warning that it will terminate any contracts with hotels that discriminated against same-sex couples.
Qatar’s hardening position may be connected to its improving geopolitical standing in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially in Europe where Qatar’s liquefied natural gas is viewed as an alternative to Russian energy.
Journalists, human rights organizations, and football associations have widely criticized allowing Qatar to host the World Cup in the first place. FIFA has a responsibility to hold host authorities accountable to an international rights-respecting standard, including on LGBT rights.
Long-term legal reform should prioritize the realities of LGBT residents of Qatar, including by introducing legislation that protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, online and offline. The Qatari government should repeal all laws that criminalize consensual sexual relations outside of marriage – before the World Cup begins this fall.
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