Philippe Nassif, Middle East and North Africa Advocacy Director for Amnesty International, spoke to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on March 4 about human rights abuses in Qatar related to its hosting of the World Cup in 2022.
Nassif, who briefs members of Congress, the State Department, and the White House regarding human rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa for Amnesty International, drew attention to the contradiction between Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup as a means of burnishing – or "sportswashing" – its international image and the appalling abuses endured by migrant workers who are building the estimated $200 billion worth of infrastructure associated with the games.
Qatar is home to roughly 2 million migrant workers subject to kafala, a sponsorship system used to monitor and control laborers whose immigration status is legally bound to an employer or sponsor.
These workers live in "appalling conditions, in abject poverty, under constant threat of either deportation or being abused by the police," said Nassif. Many of the workers have died from heat stress after toiling in the country's scorching heat all day without a break or medical support; others have gone missing or have been killed. Migrant workers have had wages withheld if they protest working conditions. Many have not been paid for months and forced to continue on the job.
Qatar's construction boom of skyscrapers and stadiums over the past two decades has been built "on the backs of these workers," yet most Western governments have turned a blind eye. Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) attempted to work with Qatar to reform the kafala system, progress has been slow and workers are still being exploited.
Qatar spends inordinate sums on public relations and law firms to polish its image in the United States "as this sort of vibrantly changing country welcome to all people." But "it's a false image because it buries ... the very serious human rights abuses that are taking place."
Qatar's hosting of the World Cup and other international sporting events is part and parcel of this campaign to "project a different image from the reality," according to Nassif. The Qataris "know that the West speaks a language of sports" and they "pick sports that [resonate] in the West."
Amnesty will "remain laser-focused on the human rights abuses occurring in Qatar."
Nassif is sharply critical of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for inviting Qatar to host the World Cup. International sports federations "have got to look at who exactly they're asking to host these events, and why they're asking them to host it, and ... [whether] they deserve that honor," he said.
Nassif spends much of his time urging the U.S. government and members of Congress to find the willpower to pressure Qatar and the other Gulf states to stop the kafala system. "The United States has leverage over these countries because they're allies, and they rely on the United States." The Qataris "have a huge military base that they would like to see remain for a long time."
The specifics of what he wants to see are simple:
[T]he first thing ... is getting members of Congress, [the] Secretary of State, the White House ... [to] publicly shame these governments for committing these human rights abuses, and Qatar in particular.
[T]he second thing is getting the Qatari ambassador in a congressional office ... and say[ing], '[this] member of Congress on this committee is going to propose a freeze on the sale of ... this military weaponry ... unless ... these prisoners are freed immediately.'
Nassif said that a new report by Amnesty International documenting Qatar's abuses will be presented on Capitol Hill. "Amnesty is going to continue to remain laser-focused on the human rights abuses occurring in Qatar, and you're going to hear a lot more from the organization as to how the United States can ... put the necessary pressure on the Qatari government to make the changes they need to make."
Marilyn Stern is the producer of Middle East Forum Radio.