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From ICC to ‘sportswashing’: The West’s self-serving narratives must be combated

July 8, 2023 at 2:07 pm

Vladimir Putin arrest warrant seen in press release from the International Criminal Court in The Hague. On 17 March 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. [Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

In March, the South African Communist Party (SACP) denounced what it described as the “imperialist bias” of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The denunciation of the ICC as a “supranational institution at the service of imperialist states” came two days after the Hague-based court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and another Russian official for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

The speed with which the case against Putin was lodged, discussed and followed by concrete action raised many questions about the integrity, balance and political agenda of the Western-inclined court.

While Palestinians immediately, and rightly, protested the hypocrisy of the ICC as it continues to treat alleged Israeli war criminals with kid gloves, Iraqis, Afghans, but mostly African activists and intellectuals, found the ICC’s moral inconsistency reprehensible.

In the 21 years of its existence: “The ICC has not issued a single warrant of arrest for or prosecuted any United States or European president, prime minister or monarch as head of state,” protested Africa’s oldest communist party, echoing the cries of numerous organisations, politicians and activists who, for years, pointed out that Africa has received the lion’s share of ICC investigations and arrest warrants.

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Indeed, since its existence in 2002, the ICC has been “fixated” on Africa. As of June 2021: “All 44 people indicted by the Court have been Africans,” wrote Qumar Ba in Foreign Affairs, and: “Ten out of its 14 active investigations involve Africa.”

This argument is not intended as a blanket defence of Africa. Many alleged war crimes have been committed on the African continent – in fact, in other regions in the Global South – many of which are associated with old and new civil wars, mass scale government repression and violent crackdowns.

But why should Africa be the exception, when numerous and, at times, even more, alleged grisly war crimes and crimes against humanity were affiliated with Western governments? Western wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – some studies suggest even millions – most of whom were civilians. The consequences of these wars destabilised whole regions and led to other crimes, including genocide.

None of this has been legally pursued in any serious fashion. The mere attempt at investigating alleged war crimes in Afghanistan led to an executive order by the Donald Trump Administration to impose sanctions on the then-ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and other court officials. Though the US is not a member of the ICC, its Western allies at the court are ensuring the Afghanistan war chapter will never be opened again.

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Africa, the Middle East and Asia – in fact, the entire Global South – have every right to be outraged.

Yet, this hypocrisy does not only apply to war, politics and economic exploitation. It reaches every aspect of global relations, including sports.

Newspapers and other media outlets in the US, Britain and throughout the Western world are bothered by the fact that top European players are signing contracts with wealthy Middle Eastern clubs. They claim that such lucrative deals are offered, not in the name of sports, but in the name of what is referred to as “sportswashing”.

A writer for the British tabloid The Mirror went as far as comparing this “sportswashing” in the Middle East to “Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics” and to “Russia’s 2018 World Cup”.

Considering the hypocritical attacks on Qatar before, during and after the hosting of a successful World Cup in November and December 2022, one wonders if Western writers have the slightest degree of self-awareness.

While one cannot earnestly argue against the use of sports to divert from poor political and human rights records, one must insist on reminding the angry, and I am sure, handsomely paid writers of Western corporate media, that sportswashing goes both ways. The London Summer Olympics of 2012 was arguably the greatest act of sportswashing in recent memory.

The British role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can hardly be overlooked, and the devastation resulting from these wars is fully acknowledged even by mainstream British society. But why is it okay for Britain, the US, Canada and all other Western governments, without exception, to create a separation between sports events, politics and war, while such separation is forbidden for non-Western governments?

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When pro-Palestinian groups called on the world football federation, FIFA, to bar racist Israeli teams, especially those based in illegal Jewish settlements in Occupied Palestine, from participating in FIFA-organised sports events, their calls fell on deaf ears. FIFA “must remain neutral with regard to political matters,” the FIFA Council stated in October 2017.

While the “sports and politics don’t mix” pretence is readily infused when calls for justice come from nations in the Global South, or racial minorities in Western countries – for example, African Americans – mixing the issues seems to pose no moral dilemma when the enemy in question is perceived to be anti-Western nations.

Western double standards should, by now, be too obvious to ignore or excuse. As Western writers continue to wage wars against their non-Western enemies, in the name of international law, human rights, democracy, sports, etc., we, too, must wage a counter-offensive in the name of equality for all.

Now that we are on the cusp of a New World Order, we must confront this hypocrisy with the clearest language – and action – possible. Either we develop a fair and just global paradigm that applies to all, or refuse to abide by the selective Western paradigms that only apply to some.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.