Written by Christian Salm,
On 14 June 2018, the 21st FIFA World Cup opens with the Russia versus Saudi Arabia match in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow – the first time that Russia hosts what is the most important tournament for national football teams. Despite some calls for a political boycott due to Russian governmental policy under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, there was little speculation that the tournament would not go ahead as planned. However, there were some calls for a political boycott of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. For example, a group of 60 Members of the European Parliament (EP) from five political groups and 16 European Union (EU) Member States signed an open letter calling on EU governments to boycott the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia due to the authoritarian and anti-western path of the Russian President.
In fact, debates in the EP on how to react to major sporting events in host countries with a poor track record of human rights have history. At the ends of the 1970s, the EP discussed policy action with regard to the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina and the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. The Argentinian World Cup, occurring around two years after the Argentinian military right-wing coup and its violent repression of critics, was described then by many sports and political observers as the most political in FIFA’s history to date. The 1980 Summer Olympic Games, the first to be held in a socialist country, unleashed a hitherto unprecedented boycott by 60 countries, in protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
In the case of the 1978 World Cup, the EP held a public hearing, funded by the then Socialist Group, intended to help move forward investigations into human rights violations and the disappearance of around 100 European Community citizens in Argentina. Victims of the Argentinian military regime and representatives of Amnesty International gave evidence to the public hearing. On the basis of the declarations made during the public hearing, the EP adopted a resolution on 6 July 1978. The resolution requested ‘the Foreign Ministers of the Member States meeting in political cooperation, the Commission and the Council urgently to take all appropriate measures to bring about an improvement in the situation as regards the respect of human rights and democratic freedom in Argentina’.
Two political developments, in particular, influenced the conditions and perspective for the EP’s considerations on the right course of policy action towards the Olympics in Moscow in 1980. First, after a period of détente, the international situation deteriorated following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979; and second, the USSR began a wave of repression against protagonists of human rights. This included the arrest in January 1980 of the academic Andrei Sakharov, a symbolic figure for the human rights movement and winner of the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. Members of the EP expressed deep concern that Sakharov’s arrest and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan were a threat to international détente and peace. As a consequence, the EP adopted a resolution in mid-January 1980, which stated: ‘The European Parliament calls on the Governments of the Nine [the European Community Member States at that time] to express abhorrence of Soviet oppression and aggression by advising their National Olympic Committees to ask their teams and individual athletes not to take part in the Olympic Games in Moscow’. The resolution followed United States President Jimmy Carter’s ultimatum of mid-January 1980 that the US would boycott the Olympic Games if Soviet troops had not withdrawn from Afghanistan by 12:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on 20 February 1980.
Then, as now, the protection of human rights was one of the EU’s fundamental values. The EP saw raising public awareness of human rights violations in Argentina and the Soviet Union as a moral responsibility, at a time when both countries gained high public attention as hosts of these major sports events. A more recent example is a public hearing in Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights of February 2014, which focused on the situation of migrant workers in the construction of football stadiums for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. This and other EP public hearings, as well as the above-mentioned open letter calling on EU governments to stay away from the 2018 World Cup in Russia, follow a tradition that originated in EP debates and policy action regarding the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.