Blinken to travel to Qatar for World Cup under shadow of human rights criticisms

World

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters during a press conference at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Qatar next week to attend the World Cup as it kicks off in Doha while also launching a bilateral dialogue with Qatari officials. 

Blinken is the first official the Biden administration has announced it is sending to the soccer tournament, which is taking place under a shadow of controversy and human rights criticisms, even as Qatar is being commended for efforts to address such concerns. 

“The Secretary will be cheering on the U.S. Men’s National Team in its first game of the World Cup, as the United States takes on Wales,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.  

Blinken, who will arrive in Qatar on Monday, will also launch the U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue and recognize “Qatar’s important contribution to international sports diplomacy as it hosts the World Cup,” Price said.

The secretary will meet with senior Qatari officials, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, the country’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister

The talks will include “a range of priorities, including global health, humanitarian assistance, international development, labor and human rights, security cooperation, climate change, and trade and investment,” Price said.

Qatar is a strategic partner of the U.S., hosting a large number of American troops in the region at the Al-Udeid Air Base, which is the headquarters of U.S. Central Command and U.S. Air Force Central Command. 

Qatar was also a critical partner in helping transport tens of thousands of Afghans and other nationals evacuated from Afghanistan following the U.S. pullout in August 2021. 

But Qatar has come under scrutiny for its treatment of migrant workers — in particular related to their employment for construction of the infrastructure related to the World Cup. Doha has been commended for implementing reforms, though human rights groups say these are falling short.  

“It’s absolutely true that Qatar has made some promising reforms in recent years. However, the problem is that all of these reforms have essentially been too little, too late, and have major gaps that don’t address serious abuses, and that’s the kind of big issue that we have,” Michael Page, a deputy director in the Middle East and North Africa Division for Human Rights Watch, told The Hill in an interview earlier this month.

In particular, Human Rights Watch is joining migrant workers and their families in demanding compensation from FIFA and Qatari authorities for “abuses, including unexplained deaths, that workers suffered preparing” for the tournament, the group said in a press release on Thursday. 

Page added that Human Rights Watch has also raised concern about Qatar’s criminalization of same-sex relationships and that same-sex couples attending the World Cup may face the risk of arrest and detention. 

“Even HRW recently has documented that LGBT people have been arrested and mistreated in detention facilities in Qatar, that’s a concerning sign for what might happen in this World Cup,” he said.

In October, Australian soccer players released a video speaking out for rights of migrant workers and against Qatar’s laws criminalizing homosexuality and same-sex relationships.

The Australian team acknowledges reforms in Qatar to improve working conditions, but says their “implementation remains inconsistent and requires improvement” and called for the “decriminalization of all same-sex relationships.”

There’s also scrutiny over how Qatar won the contract to host the 2022 World Cup. The Department of Justice in October 2021 released an indictment against representatives working for Russia and Qatar alleging they had bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights to the World Cup in men’s soccer — part of a long-running investigation by the Justice Department into corruption in international soccer.

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