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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Advancing human rights in sports can catalyze social transformation, Türk says

05 December 2023

Delivered by

Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights


Sporting Chance Forum, Geneva, 5-6 December 2023


It is a pleasure to be speaking here today.

Sport, at its core, is a celebration of the human being. Of being human, of vitality.

Beyond the obvious physical qualities which different sports demand, they each incorporate art, play, and the ethical issues of virtue and fairness. And even where an athlete performs alone, sport and sporting events depend on skills that human beings are uniquely adept at – collaboration, cooperation, and coordination.

Mega sports events, such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the FIFA Men and Women’s World Cups, and the UEFA Champions League, are extraordinary moments.

Athletes and supporters of all cultures travel the world to be together, while spectators in their millions, on every continent – in all our diversity – are momentarily connected.

Even outside of global events, sport connects friends and strangers alike.

And because of this, sport has a unique potential to bring about positive change in the world.

From fighting racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia, to standing up for the rights of the people who build stadiums – sport and human rights are intrinsically linked.

The Centre for Sports and Human Rights, under the distinguished leadership of Mary Robinson, has been a distinct institutional home for international efforts to bring awareness and action to the intersection between sport and rights.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Centre has brought together 75 athletes from all regions, each of whom has made a short video about how human rights connects to their lives and work.

I’d like to thank those athletes for using their platforms and their voices for this cause. When athletes speak out, they are human rights defenders, and require our support and solidarity.

And as you know well, there is a lot to speak out about.

We are all painfully aware of the racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia in sports.

Athletes, their family members, and fans, face frequent abuse, which is able to thrive in a culture of near impunity.

Racism in football, in particular, is so common that some in the business seem to believe it is par for the course. Brazilian football player, Vinícius Júnior, has faced hateful racist slurs on the pitch playing for Real Madrid, highlighting a grim reality that is often minimized by industry insiders. We are honoured to have him as our leading human rights champion on this front, and his remarks later today will no doubt bring home the urgency of this issue.

Gender inequality and discrimination against women, women belonging to religious groups, and LGBTIQ+ people also remain widespread.

Many women athletes who are intersex or transgender face discriminatory regulations. Some women are barred from playing because of their religious attire. Women in general face limited opportunities for sponsorship, unequal remuneration, and challenges such as inadequate changing facilities.

The grave issue of sexual abuse can affect both women and men athletes.

Discrimination, harm or abuse in sports – whether on the basis of race, gender, or any other factor -- affects not only individual athletes, but can reverberate through entire groups and communities, in all their diversity.

The organisation of sporting events also brings a number of human rights risks, ranging from the exploitation of construction and hospitality workers – many of them migrants – and the forced removal of communities to make way for new facilities.

We need responsible sport – sport and mega sporting events that are inclusive, fair, and safe, where stakeholders are properly engaged, and where human rights risks are mapped and addressed in line with international standards.

Excellencies, friends, colleagues,

Looking to the next few days and beyond, let me share with you some of the progress I see being made, and where more action is needed.

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide practical steps for assessing and addressing human rights risks through due diligence, as well as effective remedies for those whose rights have been violated.

Their “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework is increasingly being incorporated into the policies of sports governing bodies and private sector entities that engage sports, with the potential to transform the way sporting events are organized.

We have also seen significant progress in promoting women athletes. The rise in popularity of women’s football is testament to this.

Equally, the case of sexual abuse that marred the triumph of Spain’s victory at the Women’s World Cup last summer shows just how far we still have to go. As I mentioned earlier, this is only one issue that women athletes face.

We need a holistic approach that not only focuses on addressing the limitations faced by women and girls, but actively empowers them within the sports context. My Office is ready to support sports bodies to prevent the discrimination of women athletes including on the basis of gender identity or sex characteristics.

For its part, the Human Rights Council has made progress in targeting the intersection of race and gender discrimination in sport, focusing on the exclusion of women athletes with diverse sex characteristics. It has committed to promoting human rights more broadly through sport and the Olympic ideal.

In October, the Council focused on the eradication of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia from the sports world in resolution 54/25. This calls on States, sports governing bodies, athletes, sponsors, and civil society to take coordinated action in the fight against racism in sports. My Office is preparing the ground for an alliance that can meet this challenge, and I encourage all interested to join.

Excellencies, friends, colleagues,

The Sporting Chance Forum provides a powerful opportunity for us to coordinate our efforts to transform sports.

So that sports and sporting events not only exemplify the values of equality and fair play, but also become powerful catalysts for positive change on a global scale.

Let us leave this Forum not just with heightened awareness but with a resounding commitment to create a world where sports are a force for inclusion, equity, and human dignity.

In this vein, I would like to invite each of you to submit a pledge as part of the Human Rights 75 initiative next week. Pledges can be made in a number of ways, individually or in collaboration with others – you can find all the details on the UN Human Rights website.

The Centre for Sport and Human Rights has already submitted a strong pledge, and I look forward to all that it will bring.

Equally, I look forward to all the good that will come from this Forum.

I wish you a successful event.

Thank you.