The significance of Qatar, an Arab, Muslim country, hosting the World Cup for the first time has been overshadowed by very serious, documented human rights violations and anti-LGBTQ laws that deserve to be talked about.
Some depictions and commentary about Qatar hosting such a grand sporting event — like a French newspaper's depiction of the Qatari national team as terrorists — have been, without a doubt, disgusting and racist. But calling concerns about migrant worker deaths a "publicity stunt" and other instances of whataboutism by Qatari and FIFA officials specifically in response to valid concerns of violations of international human rights law is unfortunate and unhelpful for everyone involved.
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Most visible of those violations related to the World Cup, however, are the ones suffered by migrant workers. The Guardian has estimated that about 6,500 workers died while building the many infrastructure projects that had to quickly go up under the scorching sun of Qatari summers. That exact number has been impossible to pin down, however, in part because of the Qatari government's lack of willingness to adequately investigate the deaths of these men.
There have been recent legislative improvements for laborers in the country. A few years ago, government officials ended the visa sponsorship system commonly known as "kafala," which prohibited workers from changing jobs while under the original contract their visa was secured, and which led to instances of indentured servitude and other abuses against workers.
Whataboutism and FIFA's World Cup
FIFA's president, Gianni Infantino, responded to questions about human rights violations, migrant deaths and anti-LGBTQ laws in the country with a defiant display of whataboutism, arguing that, because Europe had been committing human rights abuses for centuries, European countries had no right to criticize human rights abuses in Qatar.
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Infantino didn't make things any easier for himself and his Qatari hosts when he began the tournament with a weird, cringey monologue on Nov. 19 saying, "Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel (like) a migrant worker."
After a reporter noted that he left out women, the FIFA president shot back, “I feel like a woman.”
How inclusive of him to feel so many things all at once.
Inclusivity was the theme of the event. There was lots of cloying talk about unity in a country where same-sex relationships are criminalized, where a Qatari event ambassador recently called same-sex relationships "damage in the mind" and where women must ask for permission from a male guardian to study abroad, travel, work or seek certain kinds of reproductive health care.
I'm not boycotting, but I'm not ignoring human rights problems
I am not saying that there aren't things to celebrate or enjoy at this year's World Cup. The Iranian players' silent protest, for instance, was a moving display of solidarity with demonstrators protesting human rights violations in their own country. The German team's posing for a photo with their hands covering their mouth, in protest of FIFA's prohibition on wearing a rainbow armband in support of LGBTQ rights, was another. Not to mention holding a World Cup in a Muslim country is an important issue of representation on the world sport stage.
I am also not saying Qatar is the only country in the world guilty of human rights violations that need to be rectified – I write about the United States' human rights abuses all the time. But just because other countries commit human rights violations doesn't mean we should ignore those being committed in Qatar, in the name of sport.
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Last, I am not boycotting the World Cup, but I also won't shy away from calling out human rights violations in my country or others, whether they are in preparation for war or a massive sporting event.
That's not how human rights should work.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As US advances at World Cup, don't ignore Qatar's human rights issues