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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Launch of the Northern Ireland Declaration on Sports and Human Rights

29 April 2019

Address by Ms. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights

Belfast, Monday 29 April 2019

Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Deirdre Hargey;
Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby;
Conal Heatley, Northern Ireland Commonwealth Games Council;

On behalf of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, from whom I bring warm greetings, may I first and foremost congratulate you on the Declaration on Sport and Human Rights. 

This Declaration can be an important push further down the path of aspiration, towards realizing Nelson Mandela's inspiration (as we saw in the video footage).  But now it’s time for perspiration!

Thank you for this distinction you are drawing, by Declaration between those who claiming to love sport fail to uphold its standards; those who claiming to support sport still disregard its underlying foundations, rooted as these are in fairness and equality: in the rule of rules; in the freedom to exercise one’s talent, no matter one’s colour, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. 

Your appreciation for this deep relationship between sport enjoyed and human rights upheld, comes to this fruition at a most sombre and precious moment, as the people of Northern Ireland – in sorrow for the senseless, unaffordable loss of Lyra McKee - confront yet again the costs of conflict unappeased.  Its time surely, that opposing teams come together in pursuit of a higher goal.


I wonder, if there is any other topic as widespread and universally discussed as is the topic of sport?  Is there any other conversation that speaks so much of human rights ideals, but without most knowing what is true in both these dialects: – that there can be no field or court of play without rules; no league, discipline or code of play without judge or referee; no position of powerful play held without public scrutiny; nor is there in either any room for discrimination's cruel impediments to full participation in play. 

No matter our field of play - how grave or frivolous; exclusive or shared; whether elite or common; professional or amateur; for fun or for profit - still - in sport, as in life, human dignity can be won or lost. For wherever people are at play, no matter their field of endeavour – they always without exception are rights holders.

Human rights do not prevent our diversity – they protect it; they don’t limit our diverse expression – they ensure it; human rights don’t restrict our enjoyment of culture, sport, religion, belief or opinion – they are designed to guarantee it and, they set out too, the terms and conditions – the rules - under which we may exercise our rights without cost to another’s exercise of their rights. 

There is no game without a goal.  In life, as in sport, aspirational goals committed to, with passion and discipline, drive greater excellence.  For human rights, the aspirational goal is human dignity for all in every setting, no matter the circumstance – be it conflict, crisis, contest, contagion, climate – in all contexts – the rule of law is our discipline and human rights defenders are our captains, coach and full forward.

Doubtful that excellence in sport and in rights are of the same genus? I enter into evidence such as:

  • The 1914 Christmas Day football match that marked the truce on the battlefields of World War 1;
  • Jesse Owens’ defiance of hatefulness through unparalleled excellence at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, even though he would be snubbed by his own country;
  • The fists victorious sprinters raised above their heads against race inequality on the podium at the 1968 Olympics;
  • Billy Jean King’s relentless pursuit of gender equality and wage fairness in tennis during the 70’s;
  • The 1980’s sport boycotts that helped bring down apartheid in South Africa;
  • Team Refugee’s performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016,
  • The bent knees of US NFL players denouncing police violence.

Long after the ancient Olympics were established to allow for peaceful, rather than violent, contest between opposing sides, the Irish Football Association stands up for migrants in sport and the European Sport Inclusion Network stands out for “Sport Welcomes Refugees”.

That’s the same code for which human rights plays as well: the rights to freedom of movement and assembly - essential for all supporters; the freedoms of thought and expression including fans’ rights to yell out support for their team – the right to have a team; the rights to equality and non-discrimination essential for talent not bias to flourish; the right to a fair trial, starting with an independent dully competent umpire.

These interconnections between sport and rights are more precious than superficial inspection suggests.  Indeed, the parallels are uncanny.  Did you know, that the research suggests that – keeping pace with the rise of hate-based populism - across the globe, the world’s referees have never been under more attack than they are today more.

Abused not only in the heat of the game, but under attack from the digital crowd - subjected even to death threats - in many settings, for their own safety, the blower of the whistle must now be escorted to and from the game by bodyguards!

In life – as in sport – today attacks on the whistle blowers - on  judges, scientists, journalists, human rights defenders - are escalating at the hands of the powerful: attacks on the independence of the judiciary; efforts to end the scrutiny of international courts; erosion of the authority of international standards, unashamed dismantling of the multilateral system. 

We know what the final result is of games like that already – that’s a game plan played not for free and fair competition but for one in which the powerful do as they like, regardless of cost to those with less power.

How deeply regrettable it is that in sport, as in life, the more frequent challenges to the ref.s’ authority on the court and in the field come from the game’s biggest stars: those so rich and powerful they believe the rules shouldn’t apply to them.


There is washing in sport than of jerseys alone.  The 1978 World Cup in Argentina whitewashed the image of the then military junta just as certain hosts of today’s mega contests - the Formula One Grand Prix races and the Ironman Championships – are seeking to “launder” their image internationally to disguise their human rights repression domestically. 

This makes human rights the business of sport.  Recent asylum cases demonstrate, just how powerful sport’s voice can be for human rights.  Which is why sports’ silences are just so dangerous.  It’s time sporting bodies leagues, and championships strengthen and make public their human rights policies and time to make clear to event-host countries that they will not stay silent when sport is exploited as an arena for human rights abuses.

Of the “beautiful game” it seems, no one says “look I would be keen to play but that offside rule is against my culture”.  “I would play, but not for that goal, my tradition doesn’t allow it.”  “I don’t want to play because the rules suppress my talent, deny my difference, take away my identity.”

No!  In fact, to the contrary, as small as the football pitch is, confining as its rules no doubt are, such that even the length of football shorts and size of a football boot’s stops are regulated, still each and every week, on every continent, in cities large and villages small, in rain, shine or snow, out come the people!  Out come the supporters, the players. 

Human rights?  Out come too the people!  In life as in sport: You don’t have to be like me to respect my rights.  I don’t have to be like you to uphold your rights.  We do not have to agree with each other to defend each other’s rights.  Rights are not a beauty parade or a reward system; they are for the best and the worst of us; for every one of us with the exception of none of us, for the inclusion of each of us, in the interests of all us.