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IFA football teams playing in the Israeli settlement of Givat Ze’ev. © 2016 Alex Levac for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – FIFA President Gianni Infantino today won yet another delay on deciding whether to allow the Israel Football Association to continue holding games in unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank, keeping FIFA in direct violation of its own statutes and commitment to respect human rights.

Infantino won a 72 percent majority in FIFA’s Congress (its general assembly) to delay a decision on the issue for a fifth year, until March 2018.

“Today’s decision to delay means FIFA will continue sponsoring games on stolen land, contrary to its statutes and human rights responsibilities,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “After four years, it’s not clear why FIFA needs yet another year to decide whether or not to follow its own rules.”

At today’s Congress in Bahrain, the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) proposed a resolution to require the Israel Football Association (IFA) to stop holding games in settlements in the West Bank, considered by FIFA to be part of the PFA’s territory. FIFA’s statutes prohibit a member association from holding games on the territory of another member association without its permission.

Infantino pre-empted that vote with his own proposal, which the Congress approved, that the decision on the settlement clubs be transferred to FIFA’s Council, a 31-member governing body led by Infantino. The proposal that the Congress approved gave a deadline of March 2018, but Infantino said he would put the settlement club issue on the agenda of an October 27, 2017 FIFA Council meeting.

Today’s move came after FIFA’s Council announced on Tuesday that a decision on the settlement clubs would be “premature.” Infantino told the Congress today that the Council’s recommendation was unanimous.

FIFA has been confronted by this issue since 2013. In 2015, it appointed a special monitoring committee, chaired by Tokyo Sexwale, to resolve the issue within a year. Sexwale and Infantino requested an extension of the mandate, promising a decision by October 2016, then by January 2017, and then by March 2017. Sexwale said in October 2016 that the issue was “almost in extra time.” In a draft report he presented to the Israeli and Palestinian football associations in March 2017, Sexwale said that further negotiation over the issue would be futile, given the time elapsed and the gap between the parties and wrote, “What FIFA cannot avoid is taking a decision on this matter.”

Yet Infantino told the Congress that he received Sexwale’s “final” report only yesterday. Following the vote, he told a press conference that Council members did not receive a written report from Sexwale in their Tuesday meeting and did not have a chance to study it.

Human Rights Watch, Avaaz, and EuMEP have called for FIFA to bar its affiliate, the Israeli Football Association (IFA), from organizing football activities in West Bank settlements, because those settlements are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and contribute to serious human rights abuses. Six IFA football clubs are based in settlements and host their official home matches there, on land unlawfully taken from and off-limits to West Bank Palestinians.

In April 2016, Professor John Ruggie authored a report for FIFA on how the body needs to entrench human rights across the federation’s operations. Ruggie’s recommendations for FIFA are based on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the global standard on business and human rights.

When Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, FIFA’s European affiliate UEFA blocked Russia from incorporating teams from Crimea in its national league, on the basis of the same rule.

PFA President Jibril Rajoub told the FIFA Congress that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to pressure FIFA to delay the vote.

Infantino, who was elected president last year on a platform of reform, has been criticized in recent days for making structural changes that bring internal oversight mechanisms under his control and for pushing out the head of FIFA’s governance committee.

“Infantino’s insistence on pushing through a vote to delay a determination on the settlement club issue shows he is in no hurry to put into practice his promises to bring FIFA into compliance with basic principles of good governance and human rights,” Bashi said.

Also this week, a Human Rights Watch researcher seeking to enter Bahrain to meet with FIFA officials on the settlement club issue was denied entry by Bahraini officials.

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