Today marks the eighth anniversary of the mass protests in Bahrain during the 2011 Arab Uprisings, when thousands demonstrated against the ruling al-Khalifa family’s tight grip on power. The government’s ensuing crackdown left about 30 people dead and hundreds injured.
For the last eight years, the Bahraini authorities have carried out an unrelenting campaign of repression against demonstrators, opposition leaders, peaceful critics, and human rights defenders. The government has been responsible for harassment, arbitrary arrests, widespread torture and ill-treatment in detention, unfair trials, citizenship revocations, and the elimination of all independent and opposition media outlets and political societies.
Human rights defenders have lamented that no one has held Bahraini authorities responsible, as the country’s key allies – notably the United States and United Kingdom – have been unwilling to use their international standing to call out these abuses.
However, there’s another influencer and key player that can effectively do so: the global sporting world.
Just days ago, footballer Hakeem al-Araibi, a Bahraini citizen who received refugee status from Australia, was freed after being detained in Thailand after Bahrain’s government sought his extradition on bogus criminal charges. His fear of being tortured back in Bahrain was real.
A global coalition of athletes, rights activists and fans, including Australian football star Craig Foster, mobilized alongside FIFA, football’s governing body, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to urge Bahrain to drop its case and Thailand to let al-Araibi return to Australia. Both bodies issued strong statements publicly calling for al-Araibi’s release, and FIFA’s head of sustainability and diversity, Federico Addiechi, even attended al-Araibi’s extradition hearing in Bangkok.
Bahrain, which hosts the Formula One Grand Prix races and the Ironman Middle East Championship, has long used its association with sports to “launder” its international image and cover up its domestic repression. Al-Araibi’s case shows, that at least in the sporting realm, global sports groups can make use of their human rights policies to have a real influence on human rights.
Other sports organizations – including Formula One, whose races begin in Bahrain on March 28 – should strengthen their internal human rights policies. They should make it clear to Bahrain that they will not stay silent when sports are used as an arena for human rights abuses.