Qatar's Human Rights Record Is Troubling To Many Ahead Of Soccer World Cup : Consider This from NPR Billions will be watching when the men's soccer World Cup begins in Qatar this month. But the country's human rights record will also be in the global spotlight during the tournament.

A 2021 investigation by The Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 migrant laborers died during the construction of World Cup facilities and infrastructure.

There are also questions about how LGBTQ soccer fans and players may be treated in Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal.

We hear from one man who is speaking out about the lack of LGBTQ rights in his home country. And we speak with Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch, one of the groups that has been putting pressure on Qatar ahead of the World Cup.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Qatar's Human Rights Record In The Spotlight Ahead Of 2022 World Cup

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SEPP BLATTER: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.

(APPLAUSE)

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Twelve years ago, soccer's international ruling body, FIFA, officially selected a host for the 2022 Men's World Cup. At the announcement ceremony in Zurich, Switzerland, members of Qatar's delegation burst into jubilation.

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CHANG: A member of Qatar's ruling family went up on stage right afterwards.

MOHAMMED BIN HAMAD BIN KHALIFA AL THANI: Thank you for giving Qatar a chance. And we will not let you down. You will be proud of us. You will be proud of the Middle East. And I promise you this.

CHANG: Soccer fans took to the streets of Qatar's capital, Doha, to celebrate.

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CHANG: A slice of that moment was captured by the news channel Al Jazeera.

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JOANNA GASIOROWSKA: Well, this is Doha's main (unintelligible) street. It's actually a three-lane highway.

CHANG: But the announcement sparked a variety of concerns. Would Qatar be too hot to hold the games in the summer, as FIFA has done for decades? And would the tiny Gulf emirate have the infrastructure to stage a global sporting event that's expected to attract more than a million visitors?

Well, fast-forward to now, November 2022, and Qatar's World Cup is scheduled to kick off in just three weeks. It was moved to November to take advantage of cooler temperatures in the Gulf. And as for the infrastructure, the Qatari government has spent billions of dollars on new stadiums, hotels, highways and an airport expansion. But all that building has come at a deadly cost. Millions of foreign migrant laborers worked on those projects, often under terrible conditions, which included dangerous heat, unhealthy living arrangements and a visa system that prevented them from leaving the country if they wanted to.

A 2021 investigation done by the Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 migrant laborers died in the course of the construction work in Qatar. Some of the deaths were workplace accidents. Others were suicides. Guardian reporter Pete Pattisson spoke to NPR's Scott Simon about the report's findings.

PETE PATTISSON: The vast majority is categorized as so-called natural deaths, which essentially means deaths that are sudden and unexplained. Most commonly, these are linked to cardiac or respiratory failure. Now, the problem is there's no actual medical understanding of the real causes of these deaths. And that's largely because Qatar very rarely does autopsies. There is something else going on, and we don't know precisely what it is because the Qatari authorities have refused to investigate what's behind these deaths.

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - ever since Qatar was awarded the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup more than a decade ago, human rights groups have been pushing to hold the emirate and FIFA accountable for the mistreatment of migrant workers there. And they've also been pressing Qatari authorities to take steps to end the abuse and discrimination targeting women and LGBTQ people in the country. But with just weeks to go before the World Cup, human rights groups say not enough has changed. There is still so much more that needs to be done.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Wednesday, November 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. From the day in 2010 when Qatar was selected to host this year's World Cup, human rights groups have been raising questions about the country's human rights record. Now that the start of the tournament is just weeks away, one of the biggest questions being asked is how LGBTQ soccer fans and players will be treated when they arrive. The country's government criminalizes same-sex relations, and it doesn't allow people in Qatar to advocate for LGBTQ rights. But Qatar's ruling emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, says LGBTQ individuals will be welcome in the country during the World Cup.

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TAMIM BIN HAMAD AL THANI: We will not stop anybody from coming, visiting and enjoying the football. We all live in one planet, but each of us have different cultures. We welcome everybody, but also we expect and we want people to respect our culture.

CHANG: Some athletes who will compete in Qatar are speaking out. Last week, several players on Australia's men's national soccer team, the Socceroos, posted a video where they called on Qatar to, among other things, recognize same-sex relationships and the rights of migrant workers, thousands of whom died during the construction of World Cup facilities.

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ALEX WILKINSON: These migrant workers who have suffered are not just numbers.

DENIS GENREAU: As players, we fully support the rights of the LGBTI+ people. But in Qatar, people are not free to love the person that they choose.

CAMERON DEVLIN: Addressing these issues...

CHANG: With the global spotlight on Qatar in the runup to the World Cup, NPR's Deborah Amos spoke to one man who's speaking out about the lack of LGBTQ rights there.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. There is surveillance of social media sites. Reports on gay rights in the international media are censored, says Dr. Nasser Mohamed, who grew up in an ultraconservative community in Qatar.

NASSER MOHAMED: I didn't even listen to music. It was considered sort of the devil.

AMOS: He knew he was different as a teen. He recalls knowing for sure he was gay at a medical conference in the U.S. and realized what that would mean back home.

MOHAMED: I went to my hotel room, and I just cried because all of a sudden, home felt dangerous.

AMOS: A year later, he moved to the U.S. to do residency training. But he eventually applied for asylum here. He's now a doctor practicing in California. This year, he started speaking out publicly, apparently the first Qatari to speak so openly about being gay. He says the world soccer championship gave him an opportunity.

MOHAMED: This year, the spotlight is shining on Qatar, and the world is about to meet us. And I'm like, you really need to know all of us.

AMOS: In the months since he's become a public advocate, he's heard many stories of abuse.

MOHAMED: Like, being caught by undercover cops is a very common theme, really intrusive surveillance. The fear is so, so real.

AMOS: Rasha Younes with the LGBTQ rights program at Human Rights Watch backs his claims. She says people are pressured into so-called conversion therapy, a discredited program to force people to change gender identity.

RASHA YOUNES: There are many informal conversion practices, and conversion practices really range from religious interventions to medical interventions all the way to forced marriage. For lesbian women, it is primarily forced marriage.

AMOS: Country officials are mindful of the criticism. The Qatari embassy sent a rebuttal to NPR. There are no official therapy centers for LGBTQ people in Qatar, it stated. When asked about the welcome for gay fans, the embassy responds, we welcome everybody. But the embassy letter continued, we also expect and want people to respect our conservative culture. Younes says this language is a signal to Qataris who might wave a rainbow flag or post support for LGBTQ rights on social media during the games.

YOUNES: Those individuals will definitely face the risk of arrest because the Qatari government has surveillance capabilities that allows it to track individuals and persecute them after the World Cup is over and the international attention vanishes.

AMOS: Younes says Nasser Mohamed is a voice from the region, countering claims that gay rights are just a Western import, and he feels extra motivated as Qatar enjoys the World Cup spotlight.

MOHAMED: I didn't know there was a word to describe the experience I was going through this year, but then I learned there is a term for it. It's called sportswashing (ph).

AMOS: It's when countries or companies use high-profile sporting events to repair tarnished reputations.

MOHAMED: The PR that's projecting from Qatar about Qatar is so inaccurate. It's just not where I grew up.

AMOS: Dr. Nas, as he's called, says there's a cost to coming out. He cannot go home and is unlikely to reconcile with his parents. But he says his country will only change when more come out publicly, even after the games are over.

CHANG: That was NPR's Deborah Amos reporting.

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MINKY WORDEN: In a word, the human rights situation in Qatar is bad.

CHANG: Minky Worden is the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. It's one of the groups that has been putting pressure on Qatar for years. I spoke to her about the ongoing human rights problems that she sees in the country right now.

WORDEN: Human Rights Watch has reported this month LGBT people have been detained and abused in government detention facilities. For women's rights, there's a male guardianship system that is quite similar to Saudi Arabia, where women and girls need permission from the men in their lives to get an education or perform basic tasks. And finally, migrant workers are 90% of the workforce, and thousands of workers lost their lives.

CHANG: I want to focus on the conditions for migrant workers in Qatar because, as you just mentioned, thousands of workers died building facilities that will be used by fans and players during this tournament. And, you know, authorities in the country say, look, they've enacted labor reforms in response to all the international criticism. Like, there is a new minimum wage. There are regulations on overtime pay. The system that used to allow employers to prevent migrant workers from leaving the country, that system is gone. But many people are saying that took years for those reforms to take effect. What actions do you want to see from the government now for migrant workers?

WORDEN: What dozens of human rights groups are seeking is what we call a remedy fund. And this would be a fund set up by FIFA and the Qatari government to compensate families of migrant workers. These workers - many of them lost their lives delivering the World Cup. And under the U.N. Guiding Principles On Business And Human Rights, FIFA is required to compensate those families. So if a worker died delivering infrastructure or a stadium for the World Cup, FIFA and Qatar have a responsibility to make it right to that family.

CHANG: And how much responsibility has FIFA taken in this runup to the World Cup to press the Qatari government on human rights issues? In your mind, how much responsibility have they claimed?

WORDEN: So I think FIFA has a what they would call a partnership model. And that partnership model means that when Russia is your partner, the World Cup goes to Russia, and the World Cup is used by Putin to burnish his reputation on the world stage and to set the stage for future aggression. In the case of Qatar, Qatar's using the World Cup to build soft power for itself in the region and in the world. That means that FIFA had a lot of leverage with its partner. And Human Rights Watch has been pressuring FIFA for many years to put in place protections for journalists, for women, for LGBT people, for fans, for players and most of all, for the 2 million migrant workers or more who were building World Cup infrastructure.

CHANG: Yeah.

WORDEN: So FIFA had all of the leverage but, three weeks ahead of the World Cup, has not delivered on its responsibility to pay the families of workers who have died building infrastructure.

CHANG: As you mentioned, a previous Men's World Cup took place in Russia - that was back in 2018 - Russia being another country with a very problematic human rights record. Let me ask you, what message does it send when a huge, lucrative tournament like the World Cup takes place repeatedly in countries where human rights seem to be trampled?

WORDEN: Well, there's a word for that. We call it sports-washing. It's really being picked up by governments like China, Russia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are prepared to spend billions of dollars to burnish their reputation on the world stage by hosting beloved sporting events. I think all of your listeners may have - may remember sitting around with families and cheering for their favorite World Cup teams. It's really governments with very repressive human rights policies almost weaponizing your love for football or your love for soccer or your love for the Olympics, and it's a very dangerous global trend.

CHANG: Well, as the World Cup gets underway in Qatar this month, what will Human Rights Watch be looking for specifically?

WORDEN: Will FIFA and Qatar set up a multi-million dollar fund to compensate the families of workers who died to deliver their World Cup? Without that happening before the first ball is kicked, there really can be no celebration. And we believe that players don't want to play in stadiums that workers died to build. We believe that fans don't want to stay in hotels or use metros that workers died to build. I would also say that the lack of protections for LGBT people at both the World Cup in Qatar and in Russia is completely unacceptable.

And finally, I think for the future, players and fans should never again be forced to choose between the game they love and supporting human rights. Players are already making videos and wearing uniforms that have the words human rights emblazoned across their chests. I think it's a very important statement that players are standing with the workers who built the stadiums where they will play. And maybe that is the best way forward for sport. It is that it no longer assigns its most important events based solely on who puts the most money on the table.

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CHANG: That was Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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