Global network to tackle sexual abuse in sport planned by Fifa and UN agency

·6-min read
  • Move follows Guardian investigations in Afghanistan and Haiti

  • Campaigners sceptical whether body can be impartial and safe

A global investigative network intended to tackle sexual abuse across all sports is due to be established by Fifa and a United Nations agency next year in the wake of the scandals in Afghanistan and Haiti revealed by the Guardian.

Details of the plans are contained in a report commissioned by Fifa and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in response to what it described as “the challenging learnings of complex, devastating and serious sexual abuses in Afghanistan and Haitian football”.

As well as providing “trusted and accessible reporting lines” to report abuse in sport, the new body would include the creation of a “global network of investigators” who would collaborate with local law enforcement and Interpol to bring perpetrators to justice. It has also proposed the introduction of improved integrity checks “to prevent perpetrators moving across jurisdictions and across sports” and the provision of “care support to victims, witnesses and whistleblowers”.

But Human Rights Watch and international players’ union Fifpro questioned whether Fifa was the right body to set up the network, and criticised its record in tackling abuse cases.

Related: ‘There was blood everywhere’: the abuse case against the Afghan FA president

Former Afghan FA president Keramuudin Karim was banned for life by Fifa’s ethics committee in June 2019 after he was found guilty of physically and sexually abusing several young female players from the national team. In Haiti Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haiti FA, was banned for life in November 2020 by the ethics committee for sexually harassing and abusing female players, including minors. Both scandals were exposed by the Guardian.

A Fifa spokesperson said: “The objective is to establish an independent, multi-sports, multi-agency, international entity to help sports judicial bodies investigate and appropriately manage cases of abuse using a survivor-centred approach.”

The final report was sent to more than 230 stakeholders, including the UK government and international sports federations last month. Fifa has since appointed an independent secretariat that a spokesperson told the Guardian had been “mandated to form a representative working group of experts from around the world with the different skill sets required to establish the new entity in the second half of 2022”.

According to the report, which was prepared by Swiss-based firm Beutler International Sports Advisory, the International Safe Sport Agency (ISSA) and International Safe Sport Centre (ISSC) are the two names being considered”.

The report says potential locations for the new body could be the Netherlands, France, Nairobi, Middle East, or Singapore but leans towards Switzerland, noting: “Switzerland is where the headquarters are of 45 International Sports Federations (IFs) including Fifa, as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), United Nations (UN) agencies and numerous humanitarian organisations.”

The report is lavish in its praise of Fifa for its role “as a catalyst in the global discussions” over fighting sexual abuse and praises it for “the provision of specialist investigative and care support”.

“The commitment of the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, to ensuring that this entity becomes a reality and truly serves the needs of victims/survivors has been unwavering throughout the consultation process,” it adds. “Leadership commitment will be fundamental to its success.”

Fifa president Gianni Infantino is praised in the report
Fifa president Gianni Infantino is praised in the report commissioned by football’s world governing body and the UN. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

However, Minky Worden, who is director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch and took part in the consultation process, has questioned Fifa’s suitability to lead the entity after its handling of the cases in Afghanistan and Haiti.

“Although HRW certainly participated in the safe sport entity consultation report, the production of reports does not in any way mean that the underlying problems are being addressed,” she said. “The entity was a direct response to reporting of abuse by survivors in Afghanistan and Haiti but Fifa announced it was partnering with UNODC – and only afterwards consulted with those of us who are directly taking evidence of sexual abuse that is caused by the lack of safeguarding children and athletes and poor governance controls that already exist.

“Fifa does not have a fit-for-purpose system that allows care and protection of survivors - even when they have been given the chance to do things right, the system is still badly skewed against survivors.”

Related: How Yves Jean-Bart's reign of abuse at Haiti FA ended after two decades

A statement from Fifpro said: “It is positive that Fifa has initiated the process towards reaching such an objective. However, for any new entity to be an improvement, it must honestly and robustly tackle existing procedural flaws. In our overwhelming experience, football players do not report abuse because the reporting mechanisms in the game are too closely linked with the power structures that enable abuse. Put simply, they don’t trust the process to be impartial and safe, and they don’t believe it will rigorously investigate everyone who participated, facilitated or ignored abuse.

“Therefore, any new safe sport entity must demonstrate its ability and willingness to hold both perpetrators and facilitators to account. It needs to prove that it is completely trustworthy, and that it will ensure the painful reporting process is as manageable as possible for the courageous players who raise their voice.”

Karim and Jean-Bart were also each fined 1m Swiss francs (£827,000) as part of their sanction, although Fifa’s chief education and social responsibility officer Joyce Cook told CNN in October that it hasn’t “seen those fines being paid”. “And we have no way to enforce that because, you know, we have to sanction individuals,” she admitted.

“We’re offering additional support to help to facilitate a judicial process to take place in Haiti. That’s another lesson we’ve learned from Afghanistan, which still remains an open challenge. We’ve banned the perpetrator for life but he’s still at large. There have been several attempts to arrest him. With sports we have a limit.”

Last month, a report on European Union sports policy, prepared by MEP and former professional player Tomasz Frankowski called on “all relevant actors to prioritise policies that safeguard children, promote healthy and active lifestyles and ensure safe, inclusive and equal sport”.

In the US, the Center for SafeSport is an independent body that handles investigations and complaints into abuse and misconduct in Olympic sports and has the power to suspend and ban abusers. It is currently handling an investigation into allegations against athletics coach Rana Reider of sexual misconduct, which he denies.

UK-based Safe Sport International – which has partners including the International Paralympic Committee and International Netball Federation – describes itself as “the international agency leading on the elimination, globally, of all forms of violence, abuse and harassment against athletes of all ages”. It provides victims with the opportunity to report alleged abuse but has no investigative powers.

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