It's a Problem When FIFA Breaks the Law. It's Also a Problem When It Doesn't

06/15/2015 11:09 am ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

FIFA is making headlines for revelations of breathtakingly pervasive corruption. But FIFA often manages to get its way without breaking a single law -- because it demands changes to the laws in the countries in which it operates.

Countries that host an event like the World Cup are quick to comply with FIFA's demands for new laws because of the perceived benefits of a large-scale sporting event. New laws are often presented as take-it-or-leave-it, one-size-fits-all deals. As a result, host countries may end up passing laws that contradict their own constitutions and facilitate human rights violations, including forced evictions, censorship, and labor law violations, against their own citizens.

The massive quantities of money and -- at least, until recently -- international goodwill associated with FIFA's events give the organization enormous power to strong-arm host governments (or to provide a pretext for making changes that certain interests wanted all along). But FIFA isn't the only international organization that does this. Most major sporting organizations require similar exceptional legal regimes in the countries where they operate. And perhaps most troublingly, international organizations that promote development and the rule of law fight fiercely to preserve their own immunity from suit. For example, the United Nations, while running a mission in Haiti intended "to strengthen Haiti's Government institutions and rule-of-law-structures, as well as to promote and to protect human rights," routinely battles attempts to hold its peacekeepers accountable for serious human rights violations, including rape and sexual abuse of minors.

One basic attitude underpins these different forms of legal exceptionalism: International organizations are in a host country to fulfill an important mission, and local laws and public opinion can get in the way.

In 2013, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke made that clear when he said, "[L]ess democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup." Valcke favorably compared "a very strong head of state who can decide, as maybe Putin can do in 2018" to countries like Germany and Brazil, where FIFA must negotiate "different people, different movements, different interests."

In recent World Cup countries like Brazil and South Africa, where national human rights protections are the result of fiercely-fought battles for democracy in which many paid with their lives, such comments are especially troubling. Meanwhile, in repressive states like Qatar, FIFA remains largely silent, apparently pleased with the efficiency of the strong-man state, as the human toll of World Cup-related projects rises. Again, FIFA is not the only international organization willing to work with strong-arm governments. Some multilateral development institutions, for example, have come under similar criticism for their willingness to work with dictators and their refusal to institutionalize human rights. But the combination of public goodwill, money, and tight deadlines around a sporting mega-event make it particularly difficult for the public to express concerns about FIFA's proposed legal changes.

For example, despite the "challenges" of democracy and a robust civil society in Brazil, FIFA still managed to get the federal government to enact the so-called "General Law of the 2014 Cup." Among its provisions, the fast-tracked legislation created special intellectual property protections for FIFA trademarks and patents (articles 4, 7, 31-34), barred long-time vendors and other small business people from working in their traditional places of business near stadiums (article 11), undermined national consumer protection laws (articles 26 and 67), reversed the national law prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages at games (article 29), and -- in violation of Brazil's robust labor laws -- allowed for use of volunteer labor at the multi-billion dollar commercial event (article 57). These FIFA-backed exceptions to normal legal protections are part of a broader pattern in which international and national elites use mega-events or other exceptional moments to carve exceptions into hard-won human rights protections.

These patterns of legal exceptionalism are part of the same culture in which systemic, ongoing corruption flourished. Shining a light on overt corruption is an important part of combating the human rights harms associated with FIFA events. But corruption is only part of the story.

In the corruption scandal, the problems are obvious because FIFA and its officials broke the law. It is far more difficult to identify and correct problems when FIFA simply pressures governments to change the law to suit their needs. The corruption scandal provides an opportunity for host countries to begin demanding that powerful international organizations like FIFA play by the same rules as everyone else. As FIFA begins publicly reexamining its own conduct and policies, trying to prove to the world that it can change, the organization must begin by committing to fair play itself.