Canada’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics will not end the ongoing persecution of China’s Uyghur population.
Nor will it curb the host country’s quelling of free speech, its use of hostage diplomacy, its incarceration of journalists and dissidents, its repression of women, or its continued military provocations against Taiwan.
Truth be told, Canada’s boycott — which amounts to little more than our sports minister and a few staffers skipping the games — is almost entirely symbolic.
This of course is very on-brand for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose penchant for hollow apologies, empty platitudes, and performative gestures is well-documented.
But giving credit where it’s due, it’s not nothing.
In a world where serious human rights violations often go unnoticed, or at least unmentioned, the federal government has at least done something.
Which brings us to the next international sporting event Canada should consider similarly boycotting, if only to be consistent on the question of human rights.
Next year’s FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been dubbed the “World Cup of Shame” by Amnesty International.
Living and toiling in appalling conditions, more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have died in the host country since it was chosen for the quadrennial international soccer championship.
Countless workers from other countries have also perished helping to build the vast infrastructure needed to host such a large sporting event.
Qatar has brought in some labour reforms in response to international pressure. But improvements on the ground seem quite limited, and the new measures are of little comfort to the families of the thousands of dead migrant workers.
A number of the world’s top national soccer teams, including Germany, Norway, and the Netherlands, have tried to raise awareness about the situation and show solidarity with the migrant workers.
The Canadian squad — which has not yet qualified, but is currently in first place in CONCACAF standings — has been relatively mute. So too has the Canadian government.
Canada Soccer, the sport’s national governing body, did not respond to the Sidebar’s request for comment on the human rights situation in Qatar. Neither did Global Affairs Canada.
And it’s not just the issue of migrant workers that is so concerning.
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar and can lead to lengthy prison terms. They can also result in violence at the hands of family and community members, and harsh social and economic ostracization.
No wonder Forbes magazine named Qatar the second-most dangerous country in the world for LGBTQ travellers two years ago.
FIFA, aware of serious international concerns about the host country, held a virtual meeting on human rights earlier this week.
According to a news release, elected officials and human rights groups had an opportunity “to raise their questions and concerns on a number of key topics, including workers’ welfare and LGBTQIA rights.”
“We have to acknowledge the enormous progress that has already been achieved,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said in the release. “There are still challenges but the authorities here in Qatar deserve big credit from all of us. Issues continue to exist, like in all countries in the world. Not everything is perfect in our western world either.”
Indeed, not everything is perfect in the western world. Canada’s human rights record is far from ideal, as the recent arrest of two journalists in British Columbia reminded us.
But Qatar’s abuses are on a much different level than Canada’s. For Infantino to deny this only advances the considerable “sportswashing” efforts of the Gulf states.
In addition to well-founded concerns about migrant workers and the LGBTQ community, there are also tough questions to be asked about the treatment of women in Qatar.
While Trudeau has been quick to congratulate the Canadian team on its recent success, the self-described feminist has been quiet about the host country’s strict and oppressive male guardianship laws.
Human Rights Watch published a study earlier this year showing how these laws “severely curtail” women’s rights.
“[We] found that women in Qatar must obtain permission from their male guardians to marry, study abroad on government scholarships, work in many government jobs, travel abroad until certain ages, and receive some forms of reproductive health care,” the organization said. “The discriminatory system also denies women the authority to act as their children’s primary guardian, even when they are divorced and have legal custody.”
A young women who broke the country’s male guardianship laws to escape domestic abuse is allegedly being held in a psychiatric hospital against her will.
If Canada’s prime minister truly has the courage of his convictions, he will apply the same human rights standard to the host of the World Cup as he did to the host of the Olympic Winter Games.
It’s the least he can do, and probably the most human rights advocates can hope for.