International Institute of Human Rights 45th Annual Study Session in International and Comparative Law of Human Rights: "Sport and international human rights law"

Strasbourg , 

Dear Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to welcome you to the Council of Europe.  

I gladly accepted the invitation from my friend Jean Paul Costa, with whom I worked closely during his time as President of the European Court of Human Rights. This was a very intensive period of reform of the European Court of Human Rights.  The aim of this reform was to ensure the Court was in shape to serve as a functional and effective judicial body for the pan-European protection of human rights, and thanks to the vision and innovative spirit of Jean-Paul we have gone a long way towards this goal. 

Today, President of the International Institute of Human Rights, Jean-Paul Costa continues in this spirit of innovation and vision.

The theme of your study session this year is sport and international human rights law.

At first sight, maybe the two are not the most obvious bedfellows. But cast a quick look over some of the recent major sporting events which we have enjoyed across the world.  Immediately it becomes obvious that sport is today a prism through which human rights issues are brought into public and global debate. 

A prism: because through sport, very different perspectives on human rights questions are brought into focus. 

Think of the positive changes in attitudes towards disability which came about during the London and Sochi Paralympic Games. 

Think about the debate around gender equality, again at the London Olympic Games, which were the first Games ever where all participating countries were represented by female as well as male athletes.

Think about the huge diversity among players representing their countries in the national teams playing these last weeks in the World Cup, challenging any assumptions or prejudices of what it means to be French, Siwss or Dutch today.

Then think about the demonstrations in Brazil in the run-up to the same World Cup, forcing us to confront the uncomfortable truth of the growing gap between rich and poor, privilege and disenfranchisement. 

Think about the media reports on the treatment of workers preparing for the Qatar World Cup, which has been characterised by some as a form of modern slavery. 

Think about the revelations of endemic and systemic doping which have rocked the world of cycling in recent years.

The relation between sport and human rights is indeed a complex one. 

In the Council of Europe, we have tackled this complexity by combining different approaches and tools. 

Firstly, standard-setting.  Our two international conventions against spectator violence and against doping in sport are already well-established. We are also finalising now a ground-breaking new convention addressing the manipulation of sport competitions,
the so-called “match-fixing convention”, which is raising great interest also outside Europe. 

Secondly, promoting the development of modern sports policies which abide by, and support, the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, though the work of the “Enlarged Partial Agreement on Sport” (EPAS).  In our work in this partial agreement we have addressed key issues such as fighting racism in sport, gender equality, disability and LGBT rights.

Our approach has also been to recognise and work with the specific nature of the sports milieu. 

National and international sport is usually organised and managed primarily by private, autonomous sport movements.  Sport organisations enjoy the right to freedom of association; in return they are expected to provide a service to the community — in an autonomous way, but with the support of states and within the framework of the applicable law.  Their preference is often to rely on auto-regulation rather than public controls.

This makes international co-operation in the field of sport all the more relevant, but also complex. To engage with the international sports movement and get it on board – for instance on human rights issues - public authorities need consolidated positions, guidelines endorsed by the international community, legal standards and the case-law of an international court such as the European Court of Human Rights.

The autonomy and the international organisation of sport must be respected. However, sport cannot be exempt from the rule of law and from fundamental human rights principles such as the prohibition of discrimination or the right to private life.  The promotion of democracy and human rights should be fully integrated in any sport policy strategy, at national, European or international level.

This can have far-reaching and practical consequences. Let me give you some examples:

  • The right of athletes subject to disciplinary procedures in sport should be compliant with the guarantees of the right to a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Current cases before the European Court of Human Rights concerning athletes’ privacy as regards anti-doping standards clearly raise complex and sensitive questions.
  • At a more political level, the bidding processes and the opportunities for dialogue with countries hosting major sport events must provide opportunities to advocate for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Dear friends,

These are just a few examples of the issues currently before us.  I am sure that your debates on sport and international human rights law will be immensely rich. 

I wish you all a successful and productive session.

Thank you.