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How law ‘fundamentally protects, challenges or changes’ society

At the recent 2023 Deakin Law School Oration, human rights activist, sports broadcaster and former Socceroos captain Craig Foster AM presented a keynote speech: “Using Law to Change Society: Sport, Human Rights and National Identity”.

user iconLauren Croft 07 June 2023 Big Law
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Mr Foster earned a bachelor of laws in 2019 and is a member of the Multicultural Council of Australia, an ambassador for human rights and refugees with Amnesty Australia, chair of the Australian Republic Movement, and works with a vast range of social programs.

He was also appointed a member of the Order of Australia in 2021 for his significant services to multiculturalism, human rights and refugee support organisations, and to football, and he is the current NSW Australian of the Year for 2023.

Speaking at the oration, Mr Foster said that law students and lawyers have the ability to “manipulate, change, reshape, and challenge laws” and “has a direct impact on human endeavour, certainly on freedoms, about which conversations exploded during the social and political response to COVID-19, on whether people are incarcerated or otherwise, which directly impacts tens of thousands of refugees and their families in Australia and still offshore”.


“Your work fundamentally protects, challenges or changes the way that Australians and others around the world can live their lives. It’s so important, and I’ve seen firsthand many examples of the power that you hold, of legal practitioners to change the lives of the innocent, the disadvantaged, the victimised and those left behind, all left out of the benefits that most of us take for granted by being part of this society,” he said.

“It’s difficult to imagine that it was over four years ago when a young Bahraini refugee provided protection by Australia was arrested when landing at Bangkok airport on his honeymoon by virtue of an Interpol red notice which contemplated his extradition back to Bahrain. Nevertheless, the ultimate success of the global campaign from human rights bodies, current and former athletes across a range of sports and eventually, the Australian government and prime minister of the day was very much grounded in international human rights law.”

Mr Foster also referenced the fact that FIFA has also instituted the first human rights policy of any major global sport — a framework that allowed for increased advocacy and calls-to-action to free the young Bahraini refugee: Hakeem al-Araibi.

This followed the 2010 decisions for Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which sparked “reprisals and concerns about the human rights impacts of the tournaments”, including then anti-gay laws in Russia and migrant worker exploitation in particular in Qatar as well as the criminalisation of the LGBTI community.

“In 2016, the architect of the United Nations’ guiding principles on business and human rights known as the UNGPs, FIFA’s human rights policy was adopted. This obligated FIFA itself and the major sporting events for which they are responsible, to be audited for FIFA to create an independent human rights advisory board to provide an independent adversarial and monitoring process and ensure the organisation could be held accountable by the major human rights organisations globally, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International along with athlete and other labour rights organisations.

“It also led to the creation of several important advocacy groups, the Sport and Rights Alliance, built by athletes and broader unions and the Centre for Sport and Rights in Geneva. Hakeem’s timing was then in one way advantageous because these groups were now in place flexing their capabilities, creating alliances and networks with governments and non-governmental bodies that would be critically important in applying pressure for action by FIFA and governments around the world.”

The human rights policy that obligated FIFA to uphold all internationally recognised human rights also “crucially” included the convention relating to the status of refugees and meant that FIFA had a direct responsibility to protect Mr al-Araibi.

“What is most interesting is that the human rights policy meant that FIFA, the world’s largest sporting body with over 250 million participants and the largest reach of any major sporting events on earth, [was] directly bound to stand for the rights of a refugee simply because he played the game. That is the power of human rights when embedded within sport, one of the world’s most socially and culturally influential institutions and industries,” Mr Foster continued.

“Hakeem al-Araibi owes his life not just to an international coalition of individuals, organisations and high-profile athletes, that put enough pressure on Thailand, Bahrain and Australia to free him from prison and almost certain death, he owes his life to a human rights policy. His rights didn’t change throughout the 77 days. They did not suddenly evaporate nor strengthen, and nor could they be called into question.

“They were and are universal, objective and agreed by the majority of nations, but this is true of all asylum seekers and refugees, and look how that has gone for those seeking safety in Australia. Decades lost, lives destroyed, and a nation that lost its own sense of right and wrong, only now rediscovering and recovering our sense of basic humanity when it comes to vulnerable people seeking safety, and still, with a very long path to climb.”

This potential for sport to create important social change based on international human rights law “cannot be overstated”, Mr Foster added, and was further demonstrated during the FIFA Male World Cup in Qatar. In previous decades, the working conditions of impoverished citizens living in cities hosting major sporting events, such as the Olympic Games, “was almost entirely a matter for local advocacy groups”.

“But for the first time in many decades and in a simply astounding set of circumstances in which Qatar found itself under siege from football players, fans, and advocacy groups over more than a decade, the International Labour Organisation, ILO, was able to form agreements with the Qatari government. The Kafala system was fundamentally overhauled, and Qatar [was] forced to implement progressive steps towards basic rights for workers. The effect of this is profound,” Mr Foster said.

“The political, economic and social influence of sport, when brought together with universal human rights principles, saw major improvements in the daily lives and conditions of literally millions of workers. The reforms didn’t go far enough, and this was the first substantive test case of a global sports commitment to upholding its pledges that [were] found badly wanting, but it was sport that ensured they were implemented at all.”

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