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Human Rights Watch accuses Fifa of breaking its own rules over West Bank football clubs

Human Rights Watch accuses Fifa of breaking its own rules over West Bank football clubs

Tokyo Sexwale’s campaign to become president of Fifa might have ended in a fizzle, but he is currently tasked with a far more serious matter: advising Fifa on Israeli soccer clubs which exist and play on occupied territory on the West Bank. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Football’s international governing body, Fifa, has been accused by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of breaking its own rules in terms of sanctioned matches being played on occupied territory. The governing body is facing increasing pressure to act on six Israeli clubs – Beitar Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Ironi Ariel, Ironi Yehuda, Beitar Ironi Maale Adumim and Hapoel Bik’at Hayarden, all located on the West Bank.

On Monday, HRW published a report which claims that not only is Fifa violating its own rules, but that by allowing the Israeli Football Association (IFA) to hold matches inside settlements, Fifa is engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements, contrary to the human rights commitments it recently affirmed.

The report comes ahead of a Fifa meeting in October to discuss the issue as well as an online petition by advocacy group Avaaz, which was signed by more than 150,000 people, and an open letter from a number of European MEPs calling for Fifa to act.

Campaigners want Fifa either to ban the clubs from taking part in Israeli competitions or ask them to relocate. Central to resolving the issue is South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, who last year was appointed as head of the committee to make recommendations. Sexwale has been clear that he wants the matter resolved with urgency, but he has been met with opposition from the IFA which is trying to delay the vote until next year’s Fifa Congress.

Shlomi Barzel of the IFA said in a letter to Sexwale that his organisation had “no sense” of where the issue was heading and insisted that the areas where the clubs in question are playing “are disputed”.

However, those who argue against the IFA clubs say that Fifa’s own rules say that football clubs that are members of Fifa cannot play on the territory of other football associations without permission.

Settlements on the West Bank are considered illegal under international law and since Fifa recognises the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) and the PFA never consented to matches being played on its territory, it is argued that Fifa is breaching its own rules.

It could also mean that Fifa recognises Israeli settlements as part of Israel’s territory, which would go against international consensus.

Those who have monitored the situation closely feel that the failure to act goes against other cases, with Crimea cited as an example. After Crimea was occupied by Russia in March 2014, Fifa and Uefa ruled that Crimean football clubs could not play in the Russian league.

Football clubs in Nagorno-Karabakh, Northern Cyprus, Luhansk Republic, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are all excluded from Fifa and its national competitions.

All these cases were noted in a letter sent by the 66 MEPs. Among other things, it read:

The international consensus is that the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, is an ‘occupied Palestinian territory’, not a disputed territory. The EU as well as the United States routinely exclude settlements from their co-operation programmes and agreements with Israel – and Fifa should do the same.”

The clubs in question are small and all play in Israel’s lower leagues and the issue of them playing in occupied territory isn’t new. However, it is the claim from HRW, that allowing these matches to continue constitutes business activity, which is a new angle.

An April 2016 report, commissioned by Fifa and written by John Ruggie, the author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), which outline the human rights responsibilities of businesses, makes specific recommendations for Fifa to implement the UNGP throughout its activities.

Newly elected Fifa President Gianni Infantino took office pledging to steer Fifa out of the human rights and corruption scandals of recent years, so that fans and players can focus on the “beautiful game” of football. Doing business in the settlements is inconsistent with these commitments, HRW said.

HRW does think that the clubs are doing “good community work” but believes that they are doing it in the “wrong place”, with Sari Bashi, the Israel-Palestine director for HRW, telling the New York Times: “They’re doing it on stolen land under conditions of discrimination, and they can’t fix it.”

There are technically three solutions for Fifa. The two less popular ones are for the teams to join the Palestinian league, a highly unlikely route. The teams in the settlements could also set up their own association, but that is likely to be far too much of an administrative black hole.

Fifa could also simply act on its own rules and either ban the clubs, as campaigners are suggesting, or ask them to relocate. What absolutely cannot happen is a spineless approach where rules are negotiated rather than applied.

Sexwale might not have stood a chance in making a difference in the presidential race, but he has a chance to be defined by his recommendations here. DM

Photo: Fifa presidential candidate Gianni Infantino (R) jokes with rival Tokyo Sexwale at a news conference in Cape Town, February 22, 2016. Sexwale was last year appointed as head of the committee to make recommendations on West Bank clubs. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

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