John Ruggie developed human rights policy at the UN, now he's guiding FIFA

In December, FIFA signed an advisory contract with Harvard human rights professor John Ruggie. After suffering through the negative publicity relating to the plight of migrant workers on the Qatar 2022 World Cup development, the FIFA leadership decided it was time to make some changes.

Ruggie previously served as an assistant secretary general at the United Nations, where he developed the UN guiding principles on business and human rights. Harvard will publish his FIFA report in mid-April. Ruggie, who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government, spoke with ESPN FC about the challenges and opportunities of working with FIFA in a time of crisis and change:

ESPN FC: You have been charged with overseeing a review of FIFA's human rights policies. Does FIFA have any official policies relating to human rights?

John Ruggie: They've had both in their statutes and regulations strong commitment on combating racism and non-discrimination, particularly as it relates to racism. A South American club was recently expelled for a while for homophobic chants in the stadium. FIFA has never had a systematic commitment to respect the broad spectrum of human rights and hasn't had any policy or regulation in place to do that.

ESPN FC: You will be establishing a new protocol?

Ruggie: I've been involved in a couple things. One, FIFA is still preparing the bidding requirements for 2026. They needed help in incorporating human rights language into those bidding requirements. Reviewing with them the various contracts and agreements that go along with hosting a World Cup. The other part, I insisted on publishing a public report that goes beyond the 2026 bidding requirements and simply addresses the issue of what is it that FIFA has to do to fully comply with the commitment that FIFA has undertaken to respect human right across the board. These are broader institutional issues.

ESPN FC: How did you end up in this role?

Ruggie: It goes back to June 2014. Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner, and I sent a letter to Sepp Blatter. We suggested to Blatter that FIFA should consider embedding respect for human rights in its policies and practices. FIFA announced in July 2015 that they had made a commitment to align their policies and practices with the UN guiding principles for business and human rights, which is the standard that I developed in my UN capacity.

Then in August, I got a call from Zurich. Would I come and meet with Sepp Blatter? He wanted to discuss human rights and whether I would be able to be helpful. I had a meeting with Blatter. Obviously, he was still president. And my impression was that he actually had persuaded himself that he could undertake a reform effort and then retire on a high note.

ESPN FC: Blatter hired you as an outside advisor?

Ruggie: I insisted that I would not be a counterparty with any kind of contract with FIFA, that the arrangement would be made by Harvard University, and that we would maintain editorial control.

ESPN FC: Did all this stem from what was happening to workers in Qatar?

Ruggie: I would assume that it did because FIFA was under growing pressure in the media and from their own sponsors, especially the major global sponsors. I know that some of the sponsors -- I know because they told me -- had advocated to FIFA that they needed to do more on human rights. And it was undoubtedly related to the Qatar situation, and lesser so to Russia.

ESPN FC: Explain the reforms you're developing for FIFA.

Ruggie: To imbed a commitment to human rights involves a series of steps. The first one is, of course, to get the commitment into the FIFA statutes. And there is a new clause in the draft statutes that is going to be adopted at the congress. Then it involves developing a policy that is driven into the various business functions and is included in relationships with various parties with which FIFA has agreements. It requires building up the capacity to know and show that these commitments are actually being complied with and then finally having a process whereby remedy is provided to those whose human rights have been harmed by FIFA or its business relationships.

ESPN FC: You're trying to hold host countries and developers responsible for protecting the welfare of their workers?

Ruggie: FIFA is a sports association. It can't impose standards on countries. But no country is intrinsically entitled to host the World Cup. So it is within the prerogative of FIFA to include in its bidding requirements certain criteria for the protection of human rights. And if a country doesn't want to bid for the Cup because it prefers to violate human rights, so be it.

ESPN FC: How would you protect human rights?

Ruggie: Let's take suppliers of goods and services. You would write into their contracts that they have to comply with certain workers' rights to make sure workers get paid, to make sure that the legal minimum wage is applied, if they're immigrant workers that their passports aren't taken away so that they essentially become forced labor, and so on.

ESPN FC: How does FIFA enforce this? You just said it's only a sports organization.

Ruggie: The local organizing committee is required by FIFA to get certain guarantees from the host country, guarantees for things that are required to stage the games.

ESPN FC: I'm not sure you answered the question. If you put in the contract that workers must be paid a certain wage or that their passports can't be taken, and then these things end up happening, what does FIFA do about it? What can FIFA do about it?

Ruggie: It's true that the main leverage FIFA has, obviously, is up front in negotiating the agreements and getting governments and other parties to commit. But FIFA does have a window. Typically, a bid is awarded eight years before the event. Up to four years, FIFA, for violations of contractual obligations, in theory, can withdraw the accepted bid. After that, it gets a bit tricky. What FIFA is expected to do beyond that is to use whatever leverage it has with the government, working with the government. Which is apparently what they are doing with the Qataris, to improve whatever the situation is that causes human rights harm.

ESPN FC: How long will you be in this role?

Ruggie: I'm submitting my report to FIFA by the end of March.

ESPN FC: To your mind, why does FIFA need these reforms?

Ruggie: Because it has been shown over and over again that the lack of a human-right policy and criteria in bidding requirements often has contributed to human rights harm on the ground.

ESPN FC: In 2011, FIFA created the Independent Governance Committee, charged with supervising reform. I've talked with several people who were on that committee. They were very disdainful of the process, saying that their recommendations were ignored. They claimed that FIFA had created the group as window dressing. Then FIFA hired Michael Garcia a year later, and he spent three years investigating. He resigned claiming a whitewash. And now here you are, another internationally recognised voice on the issue of reform. Why should soccer fans believe that you are anything more than window dressing?

Ruggie: Well, it's a good question. I'd say a couple of things. One, by the time they got to me, the pressure on them was more intense. The experience of those other folks was out there. They couldn't simply pull a repeat of those acts. Secondly, I also learned from those experiences. Michael Garcia was stuck not being able to talk about his own report in public because of the non-disclosure agreements.

ESPN FC: Not a good agreement for him to make.

Ruggie: Not a good agreement, no. And so that's the reason I insisted on giving private advice, but also issuing a public report. And I guess by that time, they were sufficiently pressured that they agreed to do it.

ESPN FC: You must understand the skepticism here.

Ruggie: Oh, yeah. I know. But I'm the kind of person who also looks at the upside potential. If you make a difference with FIFA, the leverage in making a difference globally is extraordinary. They're in 209 countries and territories. They are a billion-dollar business interacting with other commercial enterprises. They negotiate agreements with governments, not all of which are as devoted to human rights as we might want them to be. So I thought that the upside potential, the potential leverage was worth considering.

ESPN FC: FIFA will change the name of its Executive Committee to the Executive Council. But it appears that the body's structure and role won't change. This is an example to the skeptical soccer fan that it's just business as usual with these guys. Sure, they're bringing you in from Harvard and the UN, but how can we be sure that FIFA isn't just hiding behind your credentials?

Ruggie: One of the main reasons for insisting on publishing a public report was to go into considerable detail in a public way of what some of the institutional shortcomings and flaws are. And more importantly, what steps should be taken to overcome those flaws. And so in my mind, the public report is sort of a roadmap for FIFA. But it's also a set of benchmarks for external stakeholders, including the press, including advocacy groups, including football fans and the like.

ESPN FC: The two front-runners for the FIFA presidency -- Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and Gianni Infantino -- are both longtime insiders. Why should soccer fans believe that reform is possible under a leadership drawn from the ranks of the old guard?

Ruggie: I think they need to wait and see. I would hope that once an institutional commitment has been made to certain things, the leadership will support it.

ESPN FC: You're a human rights expert. How do you view the criticism of Sheikh Salman from Human Rights Watch and others, relating to his alleged involvement in the imprisonment and torture of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain in 2011?

Ruggie: You know, all I know about that is what I read in the newspapers. I have no first-hand knowledge of that. So I really don't want to comment on it.

ESPN FC: Shouldn't it be your responsibility to know more?

Ruggie: No, because evaluating potential presidents was not part of my mandate.

ESPN FC: The new president will be chosen in less than a week. You're going to be working under this new president for another month, right?

Ruggie: I'm going to be writing my report. I wouldn't say working under the president.

ESPN FC: You'll still be in your capacity as an advisor for another month underneath that new president. Should Sheikh Salman win the FIFA presidency, how would you reconcile your roles as a Harvard professor of human rights and a subordinate to a man accused of human right abuses?

Ruggie: I don't have the kind of relationship whereby I could be said to be a subordinate. FIFA signed a contract with Harvard, which is a deliverable, which is a report. As I said, I don't have a contractual relationship with FIFA. The semantics were very carefully constructed to avoid bad situations.

ESPN FC: Sheikh Salman is under pressure from human rights groups the world over. You are a human rights expert with Harvard and the UN on your resume. If he becomes the president of FIFA, you're going to be working as an advisor to him for another month. Do you see a conflict there?

Ruggie: I'm delivering my report. And that's the end of it. And then I'm at liberty to say and do what I want.