Sports and human rights natural teammates


“The literal benefits of sport to all of us is how it fulfils a deep-seated need; the representation of life and what it means to be us,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “The very notion within the Olympic ideal is that it’s participation above all that is the key.”

High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein discusses the link between sports and human rights with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. © OHCHRZeid was in conversation with Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), during high-level dialogue. The discussion was a chance for the two to reflect on the intersection of sports and human rights and how human rights can be safeguarded in sports and through sports.

For Bach, who is a former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) Olympic fencer, said sports can be a lever for social change because it promotes respect, a core value of human rights. Through sports, people learn the pursuit of collective goals, fairness, unity, and respect, especially respect for diversity, he said.

“Respect for the rules. Respect for yourself and your limits and respect for others,” Bach said. “Sport is the only area of our life where we have …what the philosophers would call a world ethos, where everyone respects this and it can enforced.”

Both the UN and the IOC have founding documents that lay out similar aspirations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the IOC Charter both hold prohibitions against discrimination based on colour, race, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property or birth status.

The UDHR also emphasises the universality and interconnectedness of human rights and promotes standards of life that allow us to life in dignity and equality. These principles are also reflected in the Olympic Charter which emphasises fairness and respect in sports.

One way to mitigate the risks that come from sporting events, is make sure that human rights standards are embedded in the contracts, Zeid said. He pointed to the creation of facilities for mega sporting events, and how organizations like IOC have instructed bidding cities for the games to have transparency on issues like labour rights, and supply chains. This ensures that people are not taken advantage of and mitigating measures can be taken if problems arise.

"With the more sensitive issues, we can work to iron them out and have a future where mega sporting events organizers and ourselves are working cohesively as one community promoting an activity that is at the core of what it means to be human," he said.

Sport is a valuable ally in the embedding of human rights, Zeid said. Sports unites. It helps the world move closer, by assuring that the aspirations of respect for humankind and dignity –at the heart of the UDHR —is also realized for all in sporting events, he added.

 “It is the notion you are judged on the excellence of your activity, on the effort that you put into the activity…and you are not judged on any other criteria than that,” he said. “All the other criteria attached to it – the nationality, race, religion, ethnicity – are second, almost irrelevant to the performance itself. It is the beauty, the grace, the power of the performance that we celebrate. There are some amazing people on this planet.”

Zeid and Bach’s discussion is the first in a series of roundtable reflections between Zeid and high-level thought leaders, looking at the current and future role of the UDHR on its 70th anniversary.

26 June 2018

Watch Zeid and Bach discuss the integration of human rights and sports in the video below

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