human rights & business (and a few other things)

The German Football Federation’s Human Rights Policy – A First of its Kind


It is a pleasure welcome back Dr Daniela Heerdt (@DanielaHeerdt) to Rights as Usual. Dr Heerdt recently defended her PhD on responsibilities for human rights abuses at mega-sporting events. She has a background in public international law and human rights law. Next to being a researcher and teacher at Tilburg University, she works as independent consultant on sport and human rights for the Centre for Sport and Human Rights among others. This post is hers.


On the 23rd of April 2021,the German football federation “Deutscher Fußball-Bund” (DFB) published its human rights policy. This is a significant step, first because the DFB is the first national football federation to take this step. It is also in line with a number of recommendations made by John Ruggie in its report on FIFA’s human rights responsibilities regarding how FIFA’s efforts should translate to its member associations. Moreover, the German federation is a well-respected and -resourced football federation that can set an example for other national football federations to follow.

This blog post summarizes and analyses the key elements of the newly adopted policy, compares it to FIFA’s human rights policy, and reflects on how DFB’s statement on the Qatar World Cup, which accompanied the publication of the policy, aligns with DFB’s human rights commitments. Some conclusions are drawn to evaluate the policy more broadly in the context of current developments in sport and human rights and on lessons to be learned for other football federations that want to follow suit.

Policy Statement

The adoption of a human rights policy presents an important step in DFB’s ongoing efforts to embed human rights. This journey started in 2017, when the DFB was bidding for the UEFA EURO 2024. In 2019, the DFB adopted a statutory commitment to respect all internationally recognized human rights. These steps are reiterated in the introductory part of the policy, which also reflects more broadly on DFB’s societal impact and football’s potential to contribute positively to societal development.

The policy serves as a guide for implementing the statutory human rights commitment and rests on the DFB’s acceptance of a duty of care. It explicitly refers to a number of human rights instruments, namely the UNGPs, the International Bill of Human Rights, and the fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization. In addition, it mentions Germany’s National Action Plan on business and human rights (NAP) as a source of interpretation for what this duty of care and respecting human rights mean (p.4).

After a brief statement in which the DFB condemns any kind of human rights abuse, in particular mentioning violent, discriminatory, or inhuman behaviour, and any harm to a child’s welfare or other vulnerable groups, the policy provides a comprehensive overview of the actors it applies to. This includes all organs, officials, employees, and all companies in which the DFB holds the majority of the shares. Furthermore, it extends to DFB’s business relationships and events organized by the Federation, as well as its member organizations.

Human Rights Due Diligence

The policy defines steps on how to implement the duty of care, which follows closely the due diligence process outlined in the UNGPs and Germany’s NAP (p.5). In total, 10 steps are identified: impact assessment (2.1), risk analysis (2.2), risk mitigation (2.3), influence on third parties (2.4), collaboration, dialogue and effectiveness check (2.5), existing and new structures (2.6), grievance mechanisms, remedy and compensation (2.7), dissemination (2.8), international level (2.9), reporting and learning (2.10). The level of details provided under each step differs. As examples for sources of potential and actual negative human rights impacts, it merely lists activities on and off the pitch and activities related to staging tournaments, inadequate working conditions for DFB’s employees, or DFB’s supply chains. This broad overview is followed by a reference to the annex, which gets more concrete on what the relevant human rights issues are (P.10-13).

Other human rights due diligence steps identified in the policy provide more detail, such as the measures that can be taken to mitigate risks, how to collaborate with relevant partners on implementing the policy, and how to use existing structures to advance the policy, such as using the independent Ethics Commission. However, the statement on grievance mechanisms leaves open the important question of whether the DFB creates its own grievance mechanism or adopts an existing mechanism for cases of negative human rights impacts related to DFB’s operations. In case it does set up its own mechanism, the policy guarantees that stakeholder engagement will take place. Finally, it is remarkable that grassroots level football is explicitly included in the considerations, and that regular reporting is planned within the framework of DFB’s sustainability reports.

Compared to FIFA’s Human Rights Policy

At first glance, the DFB’s human rights policy looks rather similar to the FIFA’s human rights policy adopted in 2017. It follows a similar structure, by first making a general commitment and then explaining the approach. Furthermore, both are clearly linked to the UNGPs and based on a human rights due diligence process. However, the DFB divides this into ten steps, which arguably makes it more thorough than FIFA’s four pillars that follow more closely the four-step structure of human rights due diligence as stipulated in the UNGPs. Another difference is that DFB’s human rights policy is less explicit on what potential and actual human rights risks are when compared to FIFA’s policy. While FIFA lists “salient risks” under its commitment, the DFB refers to concrete examples only in the annex to the policy. There, the potential and actual human rights risks are categorized under discrimination and racism, violence and health risks, risks related to integrity, corruption, or doping, and labour rights risks.

Arguably, the way these risks are addressed in the DFB’s policy appears rather broad and general, and lacks embedding in human rights language and standards. Furthermore, some obvious risks are overlooked, such as human rights risks related to recruitment practices for workers on tournament construction sites. With the upcoming World Cup in Qatar in 2022, this can be considered a significant omission. The fact that DFB’s position on Qatar, which was released together with the policy, does not address this issue either makes it look like a conscious choice. In fact, while the position refers to DFB’s human rights commitments, it does not mention concrete human rights risks related to the Qatar World Cup, nor does it link the risks mentioned in the policy’s annex to the situation in Qatar. Instead, the power of sport to bring about positive change is paramount in the statement. While being clear on their position that a boycott is not a solution, the DFB is less clear on how it contributes to positive changes in Qatar beyond relying on the approach of experts. Given the recent human rights efforts that DFB undertook, it is somewhat surprising that this position is not linked more directly to its human rights policy and statutory commitment to respect human rights.

Lessons to Be Learned

On the one hand, adopting a human rights policy is an important step towards ensuring a world of football, and sports more generally, that fully respects human rights. That the DFB took this step supports the sport and human rights movement, which developed in the past decade. This movement is carried forward by civil society organizations that raise awareness on human rights issues connected to sports and supported by a number of actors within the sport ecosystem, including sponsors and broadcasters. It arguably rests on the understanding that ensuring a harm-free and human rights-compliant sport is a shared responsibility among all the different actors involved, as I have argued in my PhD thesis.

The most important lesson for other football federations should be that it is possible for an organization like a national football federation to adopt such a policy. The DFB shows awareness of useful existing structures and how they need to be reformed to embed human rights into daily practices and policies. Hence, it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel. Furthermore, it is not a lonely journey, and external partners can help. The extensive reference to other organizations and actors, and the way this policy has been shaped demonstrates that the DFB engaged in proper stakeholder consultation. As a result they know that they do not have to do this on their own, but can rely on the support of and collaboration with others.

On the other hand, the policy could have been more directly embedded in human rights standards, by including references to specific provisions in international human rights instruments. In particular, it misses the opportunity to acknowledge the issue of women’s rights abuses related to football, and in particular the issue of gender discrimination in football, which Ruggie identified as “endemic human rights challenge” and “deep-seated pattern” in the world of association football. Furthermore, while being clear on who this policy applies to within the DFB’s organization, it remains rather vague on how the policy will be implemented internally. Therefore, it remains to be seen what effects this policy will have in practice.

In conclusion, the adoption of this policy constitutes an important development for the sports and human rights field. While there is always room for improvement, the fact that the DFB came this far is applaudable. Hopefully DFB’s effort will inspire other football federations.


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