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Why Bayern Munich’s relationship with Qatar could help spur change

Isolating nations does not produce human rights advances.

FBL-GER-CUP-MOENCHENGLADBACH-BAYERN MUNICH Photo by INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

A recent motion by Bayern Munich member and lawyer-in-training Michael Ott has once again brought the relationship between the club and Qatar Airways into the media spotlight. It calls for Bayern to allow the current sponsorship to lapse and seeks to bar the club from entering into similar relationships with any companies majority owned by the Emirate of Qatar.

Qatar’s record on human rights has been brought into focus with their imminent hosting of soccer’s biggest event. Leaving aside the technical side of the poorly drafted motion, and the legality of whether or it can actually bind the club, we are squarely faced with the question of whether a club that prides itself on having a social justice perspective should do business with a country with a profoundly flawed human rights record.


To engage or isolate?

The question can be simply stated. Are the people who are harmed by unjust systems better helped by engagement with the violating nation, or by isolating the nation that is not meeting basic standards? Many organizations and academics have examined this issue and most of them find that engaging, particularly on the athletic front, is the approach most likely to produce positive change. For instance both the Canadian Olympic Committee and Para-Olympic Committee have studied the issue and concluded that boycotts don’t produce positive change.


The lessons of history — you can’t cancel a country

The past few decades have been replete with campaigns to internationally isolate nations for their human rights records. Generally speaking these efforts have been an abject failure. When a regime is isolated and attacked it does not tend to become more conciliatory, rather it often becomes more radical and repressive. In addition, when a country becomes isolated it is left with little choice except to create closer relations with other “rogue” nations or move closer into the orbit of non-human rights respecting super powers.

The outcomes of isolation efforts against North Korea, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and other nations are clear recent failures. If you go back a bit further similar efforts only drove countries like Israel and South Africa to develop domestic arms industries and become more self-reliant and resistant to change. Isolation efforts have also contributed to nuclear proliferation including North Korea and Iran sharing nuclear technology, as well, back-in-the-day, Apartheid South Africa developing nuclear capacity with the assistance of Israel. Not a good track record at all.


The Case of Qatar

Our own John Dillion examined this issue in an article we published three years ago. He took a long hard look at Bayern’s commitments in Qatar, the stated club policy that they believed engagement with that nation would be more helpful then simply ignoring the country, and left off with an important question:

Although it remains unknown how the reforms will be carried out and on what timetable, the reforms should end the most notorious abuses to which migrant workers are subjected, instituting a minimum wage, enforcing payment, ending document confiscation, and improving labor and health conditions.

We are now in a position to see what progress has been made in Qatar in the intervening time. Amnesty International has produced a recent report on Human Rights in Qatar, and while they clearly want more changes and enforcement to occur they acknowledge that:

  • Qatar has instituted a blanket minimum wage without discrimination
  • Qatar has repealed the requirement to obtain an exit permit and No-Objection Certificate (NOC) for most migrant workers, allowing them to leave the country and move jobs without seeking their sponsors’ consent (the notorious kafala system)
  • The working hours for domestic live in workers has been regulated
  • They have created labour tribunals to administer disputes
  • Qatar has created a large fund to pay unpaid workers
  • The country has ratified two key international human rights treaties, albeit without yet allowing full labour organization (i.e., unions)
  • Amnesty reports that Qatar is the only country in the region that allows it delegates full access and meets with their delegations on a regular basis.

The Amnesty report shows just how important that the sporting engagement with the rest of the world has been for advancing human rights in Qatar as they push the nation to finish the reforms before the World Cup takes place. They are fully aware that as much change as possible must be accomplished before the World Cup takes place because once that spotlight has been turned off the pressure for change will subside.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also reports significant progress on Human Rights in Qatar.

And while Mr. Ott seems to think the workers of Qatar will be better served by the country having no sporting connection with Bayern, even the Qatar expert for Amnesty International Germany disagrees stating quite clearly that engaging with Qatar is better than a boycott.


The “feel good factor” vs. real progress

Ott and his team seem to think that Bayern, or the immigrant workers of Qatar, are somehow harmed by the association of Bayern with this sponsor. The facts seem to suggest the reverse is true. Qatar has made significant (although not nearly complete) progress since being awarded the World Cup, and Bayern’s dialogue with the country may be a small part of that. If Bayern was forced to stop doing business with Qatari owned companies in the future, Mr. Ott and his coterie will pat themselves on the back, brag about their accomplishments in the cafe, and the workers of Qatar will be no better off. A human rights problem cannot be solved via disengagement and isolation. As far as we can see Qatar has made more progress on human rights than any country in the region (despite very trying circumstances) over the period of time that their sporting engagement has brought attention.

While Bayern’s engagement with Qatar has not been as widely publicized as the World Cup, the club has taken steps to lead by example, perhaps most notably by having the women’s team also travel to Doha to both play and speak to young women in local schools about sports and careers. It is just this kind of human outreach that can make changes in a challenged nation.

When you dig down deep enough it becomes pretty clear that the motion is about a group of Bayern fans who feel “dirty” for taking money from the Qatari Airlines and wanting to make themselves feel pure. If Bayern stops taking the Qatari money it won’t help a single Qatari immigrant worker get a better life, or produce any further positive legal change in Qatar.

Ask yourself honestly, if not for Qatar’s sporting engagement with the rest of the world, how many of the improvements we have seen in Qatar’s human rights framework would we likely have seen? The answer should be our guide to how to deal with Ott’s motion.