Ottawa’s decision to send government officials to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup is “very disappointing” as human rights issues continue to plague the soccer tournament, an LGBTQ2 advocacy group says.
International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan and MP Stephen Ellis are in the Arab nation until Wednesday for the event, which will feature the Canadian men’s team for the first time in 36 years.
There was debate over whether delegates from Ottawa should attend the World Cup, given the reported human rights abuses in the nation and Canada’s decision to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights record.
The move to go is “short-sighted,” but there’s an opportunity for the government to take a strong stance in Qatar, said Helen Kennedy, executive director at Egale, a Canadian advocacy group for LGBTQ2 people and issues.
“It’s very disappointing, and I think that it’s short-sighted. I certainly would like to see our Canadian government speak out a lot stronger on the human rights violations occurring in that country, and especially now that the world is watching Qatar,” she told Global News.
“What better opportunity and time to let the world know that we’re not in line with any of their human rights violations, specifically around LGBTI folks.”
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On Sunday, Ottawa announced it would be sending Sajjan and Ellis to Qatar for three days to represent the Canadian government. The news came after Heritage Canada told Global News last month that Ottawa had “no plan” then to send a dignitary, and after Liberal MPs didn’t give direct answers on the issue at the House of Commons last week.
Sajjan and Ellis will be cheering on the men’s team, and will also participate in “a trilateral sports diplomacy event” with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard, Ottawa said. Sajjan will also meet with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Qatar’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, to discuss humanitarian assistance and international development.
Qatar’s World Cup has been the subject of controversy since it was named host by FIFA 12 years ago. Qatar has faced skepticism about how it persuaded FIFA to vote for the country. Twenty-one of the 24 men on the FIFA executive committee who voted for the World Cup hosts in 2010 were variously convicted in criminal or ethics cases, indicted, acquitted at trial or implicated in wrongdoing.
Allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers building World Cup infrastructure have been made by human rights groups for years. Qatar’s ruling emir has called the criticism an “unprecedented campaign” targeting the first Arab nation to host the tournament. Qatar has repeatedly pushed back, insisting it has improved protections for migrant workers and claiming the criticism is outdated.
Amnesty International and other human rights groups have been calling on participating nations to support calls for FIFA and Qatar to create a US$440-million remedy fund to compensate workers and improve worker protections.
Alasdair Bell, FIFA deputy secretary general, has said the organization is open to talks on remedy and reparations. But in an AFP interview published Nov. 2, Qatar’s labour minister rejected those calls, saying the government has already handed out millions in unpaid wages. Canada’s sport minister, Pascale St-Onge, told Global News in a statement last month Ottawa was joining calls for “transparency and robust measures” to protect migrant workers.
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“This World Cup was built on the backs of people who have suffered high and extreme harms, and we would like and we expect Canada to be raising these grave human rights concerns that are being discussed and raised globally strongly with the Qatar government,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general with Amnesty International Canada.
In the lead-up to the World Cup, athletes also voiced concern over the safety of LGBTQ2 fans in Qatar, given that homosexual acts are illegal in the conservative Muslim country. Qatar has vowed LGTBQ2 fans won’t face arrest, but Qatari security forces arbitrarily arrested and abused LGBTQ2 Qataris as recently as September, Human Rights Watch said on Oct. 24. Qatar has rejected those accusations.
Ottawa has warned Canadian fans in Qatar to “dress conservatively” and “behave discreetly” given the laws there. In an Oct. 28 tweet, St-Onge said the safety of Canadians attending the World Cup must be secured.
In a statement sent to Global News Sunday evening, a spokesperson for Sajjan said “promotion of human rights is an integral part of Canada’s foreign policy” and “we will continue to engage Qatar bilaterally on key Canadian priorities, including human rights.”
Kennedy hopes the delegation will find time to hear from marginalized communities on their lived experiences in Qatar.
“They need to know and consult with the community members who are directly impacted by the violence, the harassment and the legislation that criminalizes their actual identities,” she said.
“If they don’t have the language, if they don’t have the history, if they don’t have the knowledge of the day-to-day lived experiences of members of the LGBTI community, they can’t articulate or advocate on behalf of anyone.”
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Nivyabandi also hopes the dignitaries will speak to Canada Soccer. Amnesty International Canada has been critical of the sport’s national governing body for its “deafening silence” regarding the issues in Qatar. Late last month, Canada Soccer released a statement saying it “supports the ongoing pursuit of further progress regarding workers’ rights and inclusivity” around Qatar’s World Cup.
“Canada is the next host with the United States and Mexico of the World Cup, (and they’re) in a position to really push strongly for the respect of human rights beyond the World Cup,” she said.
“Canada has built a reputation as a country that prioritizes human rights, so one would expect that the Canadian team, of all teams, will be among the first to be in solidarity and support with migrant workers.”
World Cup teams won’t wear rainbow armband
Several World Cup teams walked back their plans for their captains to wear armbands that were seen as a rebuke to Qatar’s human rights record after FIFA warned of on-field punishment on Monday.
FIFA warned players just hours before kickoff that they would be immediately shown yellow cards, which may have led to fines. The displays are a violation of FIFA rules. FIFA also banned Belgium’s team from wearing their away jersey during the World Cup as it featured the word “Love” in the collar and a rainbow-coloured trim. Belgium faces Canada on Wednesday.
However, players representing England and Iran displayed some form of protest on Monday, with England’s players taking a knee before the match began. Iran’s players did not sing the national anthem, in an apparent show of solidarity with anti-government protesters in their country amid discontent over their reluctance to speak out.
It’s unclear if Canada’s players have any form of protest planned. Canada Soccer directed Global News to its October statement when asked on Monday.
A government official, speaking on background, told Global News last month it’s up to the players and Canada Soccer to decide if they will take any similar measures.
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press