Qatar World Cup and LGBTQ safety: reassurances are not enough

by Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana | ILGA World
Wednesday, 16 November 2022 09:20 GMT

A woman walks past an illuminated art installation ahead of the FIFA 2022 World cup soccer tournament at Katara Cultural Village in Doha, Qatar November 15, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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As teams head to the football World Cup in Qatar, will LGBTQ+ fans be welcome and safe?

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana is senior consultant, sport and human rights, ILGA World.

There are only a few days left until the 2022 Men’s World Cup kicks off in Qatar and FIFA has been inviting to “focus on the football”.

It is quite a big ask to make.

Multiple reports have cast a worrying light on the World Cup host, documenting abuses against migrant workers, the repression of press freedom, and restrictions on women’s rights.

The Qatari Penal Code criminalises and discriminates people on the grounds of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. These laws are sufficient to put LGBTQ+ people at risk – irrespective of whether they are locals or athletes, supporters, journalists and others working on the World Cup.

Many football fans from all over the world have been left wondering whether they could have made their way to safely enjoy the games. But answers have been contradictory and ambiguous.

Qatari authorities said they would abide by FIFA's guidelines, but expected attendees to "respect our culture". Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, director of logistics at the Ministry of the Interior, said that LGBTQ persons "would be welcome at the World Cup", but rainbow flags would be confiscated. Only a few days ago, a tournament ambassador made extremely homophobic remarks during a television interview. So, whose voices are LGBTQ+ people supposed to believe and trust?

Diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions are hardly addressed publicly in Qatar. And yet, the mere fact that the World Cup was going to be held there has put an unprecedented spotlight on the human rights violations that LGBTQ+ people face in criminalising countries.

Same-sex sexual activity is prohibited under multiple parts of the Qatari Penal Code and punished with up to 10 years in prison. Under Sharia law, it is technically possible that Muslim men could face the death penalty for same-sex sexual activity. In March 2022, a Qatar delegation denied before the United Nations Human Rights Committee that capital punishment is applied in such cases. However, how Sharia law is effectively applied is unclear.

According to ILGA Asia, the Asian branch of ILGA World, it seems less likely that the death penalty would be imposed on visiting World Cup fans. Nevertheless, the question of what would happen to the local population during and after the World Cup remains uncertain.

ILGA World documented cases of criminalising laws being enforced as early as 1995, when a US citizen was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment and 90 lashes for alleged “homosexual activity”. Human Rights Watch reported cases of arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment in detention of LGBTQ+ Qataris as recently as September 2022.

So, what has been done to ensure that LGBTQ+ people would be truly welcomed on the occasion of a global sporting event?

The LGBTIQ+ Human Rights Sports Coalition, an international group of organisations advocating for equality in sport, stated that the Qatar Supreme Committee has said privately that criminalising laws would have been suspended until early 2023, as part of an "enabling law" – whose details have not been made public yet.

FIFA has developed a Sustainability Strategy for the World Cup, which however falls short of meaningfully mentioning the rights of LGBTQ+ peoples. Despite the presence of an independent human rights working group, demands for actions have been left unanswered. Reassurances that LGBTQ+ persons would be welcomed cannot be considered as commitments.

And yet, this goes beyond the World Cup. When the event will be over, LGBTQ+ Qataris could potentially face increased targeting once the world’s attention has turned elsewhere. We all owe them respect and understanding: any action must take the safety of the local community into account.

An ex-president of FIFA recently commented that choosing Qatar as the host of the World Cup was “a mistake”. So, let us learn a lesson: an international sporting event has no place in a discriminatory environment.

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