The World Cup Should Make Us Rethink Our Understanding of Human Rights

Media coverage of the World Cup has rightly highlighted the atrocious working conditions of migrant workers. But we need to broaden our definition of human rights abuses to include the global economic system that forces them to go to Qatar in the first place.

Construction work at Lusail Stadium in Doha, Qatar. (Francois Nel / Getty Images)

It pays not to think too much about the wider environment surrounding football today. Excess, greed, ferocious self-interest, and stark inequalities are its guiding principles. Repressive states intoxicated on the rewards of fossil capital now use the sport as a pawn in their geopolitical game, while players market useless and ethically corrupt NFTs to their millions of fans.

In the face of this depressing scene, it has been encouraging to see several football associations and many international players take a stand on human rights in the lead-up to the World Cup in Qatar. Surely no spectator can watch this World Cup without knowing about the desperate plight of migrant workers, the repression of women in everyday life, the crackdowns on press freedom, and the punishment of LGBTQ people.

Whether spectators care or not is a different question, of course. But the signs are that most football fans would prefer that the World Cup was not taking place in a country with such a terrible human rights record.

Human Rights for All?

The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), of course, would rather we all focused on the game itself, as if football was somehow divorced from the machinations of global capitalism and its various discontents. It has even blocked the Danish Football Association from printing “human rights for all” on its training shirts.

The sport’s governing body has rightly been castigated for its attempt to stop associations, players, and fans from voicing their opinions on the human rights abuses in Qatar. But a more challenging question lurks in the background: What does a term like “human rights for all” really mean?

We reflexively employ the term “human rights” as if it can nullify any moral argument. But how many of us can truly say we know exactly what we mean when we utter the words “human rights”?

The Right to Have Rights

Human rights have a contested and complicated history. In her seminal 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, the philosopher Hannah Arendt identified what she called “the right to have rights,” which, in the context of Jewish persecution during World War II, only came about “when there suddenly emerged millions of people who had lost and could not regain these rights because of the new global political situation.”

Arendt had personal experience. As a Jew, she was forced to flee Germany to Paris in 1933. After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, she managed to find a way to the United States, where she was granted citizenship in 1951. Her point about “the right to have rights” was that in order to actually possess human rights, a human being has to belong to some kind of political community — usually citizenship of a nation-state. Simply being human is not enough in itself.

The chilling truth of Arendt’s assertion is all too evident today, especially at the borders of nation-states, where those perilously crossing seas or traversing dangerous borderlands are deemed rightless and thus expendable and deportable at will. Routinely, it is the very people who are in desperate need of rights that lack the very right to have rights. Unquestionably, many of these rightless people have toiled on the building sites of the stadiums in Qatar that will host the forthcoming World Cup.

Arendt’s idea implies that the concept of human rights is not quite as straightforward as we make out. Whereas FIFA tells us to leave the politics out of the World Cup, we often leave the politics out of human rights. But the ways in which we use the language of human rights today is historically contingent.

Human rights are wrapped up in the ideological and political struggles of the second half of the twentieth century between collective and individualistic worldviews, social welfare and market freedom, social democracy and neoliberalism. The human rights that we invoke in debates about the Qatar World Cup are representative of, rather than antithetical to, the victory of individualism, market freedom, and neoliberal capitalism in these political struggles.

Splitting Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 on the back of the horrors of World War II. The nonbinding Declaration began by recognizing that “the inherent dignity and of equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

The UDHR set out general standards of human rights. For the first time in any substantive sense, these included economic and social rights, like the right to housing, food, and education. The inclusion of such rights in the UDHR not only indicated an emphasis on social welfare in the wake of the Great Depression, but also reflected the strength of labor movements in the mid-twentieth century.

Over the next two decades, work continued turning these standards into binding obligations, while the composition of the United Nations (UN) itself shifted rapidly as a result of decolonization. Human rights were subsequently split into two separate covenants, signed in December 1966, one on civil and political rights and the other on economic, social, and cultural rights. With the new postcolonial states joining the UN, it was significant that both covenants recognized the right of all peoples to self-determination.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights dealt with what we can broadly describe as individual rights — for example, freedom from torture and slavery; procedural fairness in the face of the law; and freedom of movement, thought, and speech. These were largely rights that could be secured through legal frameworks and could be generalized across national borders in some shape or form.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights focused on collective rights, such as the right to free education and health care; to join labor unions; and to have social security, paid parental leave, and an adequate standard of living. To enforce such rights required governments to intervene in the free market to allocate resources in fair and equitable ways.

Because of this requirement, these rights were much more beholden to the vagaries of nation-state politics than were civil and political rights. Notably, in the context of the Cold War, the United States did not ratify the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and still has not done so to this day.

While the inclusion of economic and social rights in the UDHR was a significant moment in the history of human rights, as the historian Samuel Moyn has noted, “for those states that ratified it, the treaty was deprived of any prospects of enforcement for a long time.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on the other hand, came into existence with a legislative and organizational infrastructure to monitor how nation-states were implementing the treaty.

Human Rights and Neoliberalism

Crucially, by the time each covenant became effective in 1976, the swinging ’60s and its economic boom had given way to the stagflationary ’70s and a global oil crisis, among other economic and political disturbances across the West. The Western social democratic political model was fragmenting.

Strong welfare states, high taxations systems, and wealth redistribution policies had not prevented economic downturns and their associated social ills, such as unemployment and growing poverty. A new neoliberal counterorder was emerging in which many intellectuals, politicians, and policy advisors saw the possibility of using individual civil and political rights to protect against collective economic and social rights.

Moyn pinpoints the 1970s as the starting point of the human rights revolution, especially with the rapid rise of organizations like Amnesty International. But as he points out, “the most extraordinary fact about this human rights revolution, from the perspective of ideals about how to distribute the good things in life, is that, with some key exceptions, it unceremoniously purged attention to economic and social rights.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many countries in the Global North introduced some legal frameworks for the implementation of economic and social rights, but these paled in comparison to the frameworks on civil and political rights. Moreover, without strong welfare states, redistributive policies, and powerful labor movements, which had been dismantled under ascendent neoliberalism in the 1980s, there were effectively few political or social structures to disseminate economic and social rights.

Unsurprisingly, economic and social rights were anathema to neoliberal intellectuals in the mid-twentieth century, who viewed them as curtailing rather than facilitating human freedom. In her remarkable book The Morals of the Market, Jessica Whyte charts the intertwining histories of modern human rights and neoliberalism. As Whyte puts it:

The challenge for the neoliberals was to overcome the egalitarianism of communal cultures and the assumption that basic welfare was a right, and to instil the morals of the market and a culture of individual rights.

The neoliberals thus saw potential in civil and political rights as a way to guard against economic and social rights. Milton Friedman, for example, argued that “property rights are not in conflict with human rights. On the contrary, they are themselves the most basic of human rights and an essential foundation for other human rights.”

By placing individual rights, like the right to private property, above all forms of collective rights, neoliberal intellectuals and politicians used the language of human rights to insist that any policies of wealth redistribution or social welfare were effectively a violation of an individual’s right to accumulate their own wealth at the expense of others. As Whyte observes:

These were not the rights to food, clothing, housing, and education enshrined in the UDHR, which sought to offer some protection from market forces. On the contrary, neoliberal “economic rights” sought to protect the market freedom of private capital.

In this respect, human rights could be mobilized to aid what Quinn Slobodian has referred to as neoliberal “market encasement,” whereby supranational institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, insulate the market from democratic demands.

Governments thus increasingly came to use the concept of human rights to expand existing economic and social inequalities, on the basis that each individual is deemed equal when they enter the market. They deemed the question of how they got there and what happens in the aftermath to lie beyond the reach of human rights.

History Repeating Itself

This history matters because when human rights are invoked today, including in the context of the Qatar World Cup, it is first and foremost civil and political rights that are deemed to have been violated, such as the right to express one’s sexuality in public without fear of punishment. While these rights are of course essential, the process by which human rights melded with neoliberalism shows us that civil and political rights can exist alongside other forms of exploitation and deprivation if economic and social human rights are not deemed essential to a functioning society.

This neglect of economic and social rights has been evident throughout the current reporting of the Qatar World Cup. Discussions about the treatment of migrant workers identify the various violations of workers’ rights, from wage theft to passport confiscation and illegal recruiting fees. But these are understood as violations of each individual worker’s right, even if we talk about “workers” in the plural. The only real exception to this is the right to unionize.

If Qatar had met the principles for the civil and political rights of workers, the exploitation of this migrant labor force would still have been necessary. These workers could have been granted the freedom to move while in Qatar, for example, but few would possess the freedom to stay in their homelands precisely because their own states have not adequately delivered their human rights to food, housing, education, and other social necessities.

Appeals to end human rights violations in Qatar focus on the instances of repression without reflecting on the structural causes of that repression. There is much less discussion in the media, for instance, of global capital and the workforce it requires, especially the exploitation of the working poor in the Global South by carbon-rich nation-states. If they weren’t building football stadiums, another megaproject would have brought millions of migrant workers to Qatar. The problem is not just the repressive nature of the Qatari state, but the way in which global capital organizes and exploits labor.

This brings us to a wider point about human rights that takes us beyond the context of Qatar and this World Cup. There are many people in the Global North who for all intents and purposes possess civil and political rights — they are free to be pretty much whoever they want to be under the eyes of the law, even if they might encounter social forms of discrimination. Yet the security of these rights does not stop them from having to use food banks or choose between heating their house or eating a meal.

They can choose who they want to be, but they cannot choose to avoid being a victim of austerity. In an alternate universe, one where economic and social rights carry as much weight as civil and political rights, we would be castigating these so-called developed nations for their human rights abuses as well.

None of this should dissuade us from discussing human rights in the coming weeks of the World Cup. But it might make us think a bit more about what exactly we mean when we use the term “human rights.” These two words carry contradictory and even antagonistic resonances that are deeply implicated in the wider economic and social structures of capitalist societies.

We cannot effectively critique and counteract human rights violations without also demanding the radical economic and social transformations of our societies. The history of the separation of civil and political rights from economic and social rights — or more crudely, of individual rights from collective rights — is fundamental to the functioning of contemporary capitalist democracies. The food banks of Britain form part of the same global tapestry into which the building sites of Qatar are sewn. We must keep this in mind throughout and beyond the World Cup.