More state bodies are dealing with discrimination in football across Europe

Their work is often slow and patient, it rarely makes headlines, but the growing number of government appointed bodies in Europe turning their attention to discrimination in football could have a significant impact in the future.

Over the past year in Portugal, Romania and Spain state bodies and government agencies have been stepping in to prosecute high profile incidents inside stadiums.

When incidents of discrimination take place in football, football associations (or confederations) deal with them through disciplinary measures, issuing sporting sanctions - bans, stadium closures or fines. At the same time, acts of discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes are also crimes within the penal code of many countries.

The focus of state legislation is on upholding basic human rights and prosecuting perpetrators within criminal processes.

When state interventions do take place, they usually do so after the action of football bodies. In some cases the action taken by FAs is seen as inadequate or the associations appeared to lack capacity to enforce regulations, in other countries state interventions have been aimed at ensure individual spectators are prosecuted if the police have not taken action.

Legal foundation

The background is that governments across Europe, particularly those within the European Union, have established institutions to safeguard human rights and combat discrimination. Their mandates and powers differ according to the framework of their operation, but most are either formulated in keeping with definitions from the Council of Europe (CoE) or the United Nations frameworks, or set up specifically to uphold equality legislation required to be a member of the European Union.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty of the European Union argue that “no one should be discriminated against on grounds of sex, race, ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation”.

The EU treaties and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights are binding for all members, while the Council of Europe standards for equality are not legally binding, but carry significant political weight.

The powers of national level state bodies vary. Some only support complaints mechanisms and monitor issues related to discrimination, while others have sanctioning powers and are able to prosecute perpetrators. Several states have established specialised bodies dealing with violence and discrimination in sport, while others have national bodies dealing with the whole spectrum of discrimination in society.

Within these frameworks, there are four types of state bodies who deal with discrimination in sport:

• Equality bodies under the guidelines of the Council of Europe

• National institutions for combating discrimination and fight against racism under the Directives 2000/43/EC and 2000/78/EC of the European Union

• National Human Rights Institutions under the UN Paris principles adopted by the UN in 1993 defining the status and functioning of national institutions for the protection and promotion of human rights

• Government agencies created to deal with violence and discrimination in sport

When using the term ‘state bodies,’ keep in mind that although they are formed by national governments, the key requirement of such bodies is independence in safeguarding equality at national level, which is underlined by the Council of Europe as well as the UN.

In the past state institutions rarely intervened when racist, sexist or homophobic abuse took place in football, or sports personalities misused their platforms to make discriminatory statements. It was left to football bodies to deal with it through the autonomy that team sports enjoy to manage their own affairs. There were exceptions, such as in the UK, where police prosecute individuals for racially aggravated offences in football.

The power of football regulation

This relative autonomy of football regulation can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, football can sometimes set higher standards for the protection of human rights and prosecuting discrimination than national legislations. UEFA and FIFA have set multiple legal precedents in prosecuting racist abuse and homophobic chanting or neo-Nazi propaganda that would not be prosecuted by many countries through their legal frameworks.

On the other hand, at national level we have seen football largely failing to prosecute discriminatory offences, whether due to imperfect regulations, a lack of will, or other reasons. And until now national equality bodies have been very slow to step in.

Discrimination perpetrated in stadia should be tackled in the same way that such offences are prosecuted in society. Football has the responsibility to tackle discrimination, but it requires considerably more support of governments and EU institutions, they have the means available to them to address the deeper societal problem through laws and social policies.

Over the past few years, we have noted greater involvement of state bodies and government agencies in several European countries. Practice in countries such as Portugal, Romania, Spain and Italy, indicates there is a need for greater multi-agency cooperation and involvement of state bodies in tackling discrimination to complement sports disciplinary process.

Prosecutions after the abuse of Inaki Williams

And it can have an impact. Here’s what Athletico Bilbao striker Iñaki Williams said on social media said after the Barcelona Hate Crimes Prosecutor's Office charged two Espanyol fans for racist abuse: “We are in a society in which there must be changes and this is one of them. I am very happy with the prosecution that has taken a very important step."

Read what state authorities are doing to tackle discrimination in football in Portugal, Romania, Spain and now Italy here.

Pavel Klymenko from the Fare network commented on the importance of the new state and European level mechanisms to tackle discrimination:

“When normality returns to sport, the concern is that discrimination and far-right involvement in football will continue where it was left off before the pandemic. If governments are not to be caught unaware independent equality bodies should be readying themselves to be stepping up their efforts to tackle discrimination in sport, to pick up where football bodies cannot take effective action.

“The recently launched EU Anti-Racism Action Plan 2020-2025 calls for the development of national-level action plans. This could be an important step if national action plans consider issues of discrimination in football, the damage it does to society and the potential football has to tackle discrimination through its popularity and platform.

“It is an opportunity to bring football authorities, governments, international institutions, minority groups and civil society together to develop complex measures where they are needed the most – at national level.”

The Fare network operates a global Observer system at FIFA and UEFA competitions recording incidents of discrimination. Acting as an international data hub, Fare works with FAs, leagues and clubs to improve responses to discrimination and strengthen prevention and education.

Grounded in a network of membership groups mostly in Europe but growing worldwide, Fare liaises with international organisations and governments to tackle all forms of discrimination in football and society.

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