Opinion

Grievous concerns regarding AFC and al-Araibi remain

Detained Melbourne-based refugee Hakeem al-Araibi is facing deportation from Thailand to his native Bahrain. Source: AAP

The response from the Asian Football Confederation to requests for disclosure of actions undertaken in support of the release of Bahraini refugee and Pascoe Vale FC footballer, Hakeem al-Araibi, from a Thai jail pending possible extradition to Bahrain is both belated, and grossly inadequate.

And, consequently leaves two, extremely concerning questions unanswered.

Firstly, whether the personal conflict of the Bahraini President of the AFC, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, regarding a young man who has been publicly critical of the Sheikh’s alleged role in a human rights atrocity is, in any way compromising his, or his organisation’s advocacy for Hakeem.

And whether impending AFC and FIFA elections on April 6 and June 5 respectively - and for which the electoral periods for campaigning are currently open - are impeding the willingness of football’s stakeholders to hold the AFC President accountable.

In other words, are football’s stakeholders making it clear to Salman that he needs to stand up for our player or are they more interested in his patronage or vote next year?

Neither of these concerns have been alleviated following the curt response by the AFC to organisations that sought to ensure the regional body is acting in good faith to uphold Hakeem’s rights, stating only that:

"..the AFC is monitoring the situation closely and is in contact with FIFA and the respective Member Associations involved."

No response to questions raised by FIFPro and human rights organisations about actions being taken at government level, specifically relating to Bahrain, at the epicentre of the diplomatic crisis and from where the AFC President hails.

The second report by the FIFA HRAB last month at 2.7, Strengthening FIFA’s Approach to Engagement and Communication on Human Rights, recommended that "affected stakeholders or their representatives need to receive prompt information about how risks to their personal safety are being handled".

Hakeem and his representatives are entitled to accurate, timely and detailed information regarding the actions being undertaken by the AFC. After a full month, no support has been provided by the AFC to Hakeem and journalists are having extreme difficulty getting information or their questions answered by the governing body.

If Hakeem is returned to Bahrain contrary to the international law that FIFA and AFC are bound to uphold, all involved at a governance level across the international, regional and national level will need to account for the amount of advocacy, formal and informal, they applied or failed to apply to the AFC to carry out its full obligations.

In the absence of access to remedy for human rights breaches or non-compliance with football’s constitutional duties by office bearers, those advocating for Hakeem’s human rights are left to protest and have done so vociferously. The only redeeming feature of the detestable affair has been the manner in which the football community here and abroad has united for Hakeem.

Clearly, there is still good in the world.

And supporters will hope the eight-person, independent FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board (HRAB) chaired by Australian lawyer, Rachel Davis, is able to influence the process because, by the time it issues its third report in November 2019 which would include the present case, it will be far too late for the young man.

That is why questions need to be asked now. It is the global football public, fans, media, clubs, players and former players that must play a de facto role as human rights defenders on Hakeem’s behalf.

You are the immediate, and interim, independent Human Rights Advisory Board.

Al-Araibi has already been in detention for more than a month. We can only imagine the torment the young man is experiencing, having allegedly been subject to torture when incarcerated previously in Bahrain and that of his wife, who knows intimately the future that awaits her husband if we fail to have him safely returned to Australia.

The statement above is deeply unsatisfactory as the AFC and its President are bound not only to work with Member Associations, but all relevant authorities and stakeholders under FIFA Human Rights Policy 2017 (7) which applies to all FIFA bodies and states that where:

"..national laws and regulations and international human rights standards differ or are in conflict with each other, FIFA will follow the higher standard.. (and) constructively engage with the relevant authorities and other stakeholders and make every effort to uphold its international human rights responsibilities."

The "relevant authorities and other stakeholders" in Hakeem al-Araibi’s case are, at a bare minimum, the following: 

1. The government of Thailand;
2. The Football Association of Thailand;
3. The Bahrain government;
4. Bahrain Football Association;
5. The Australian government;
6. Football Federation Australia;
7. Interpol;
8. The AFC;
9. FIFA.

Further, FIFA (and the AFC) must "apply effective leverage.. where this relates to strengthening human rights in or through football." (FIFA Human Rights Policy (4).

Therefore, it is a dereliction of duty if the regional body has not vigorously pressed the case for Bahrain to withdraw its extradition request via direct representation to the Bahrain government whose national laws and regulations are in conflict with the AFC.

Likewise, the AFC President is duty-bound not only to advocate through the Football Association of Thailand, but directly to the Thai government. Again, in direct opposition to government policy of his homeland.

The second concern is whether looming elections are impeding FIFA in carrying out its responsibility to direct the AFC and its President to uphold their human rights obligations, or to override the regional confederation and press Hakeem’s case directly with the Bahrain and Thai governments.

The football public need to ensure that FIFA apply maximum pressure on the AFC and its President to advocate for Hakeem and oppose the policy of his own government despite any need by FIFA President, Gianni Infantino for the Sheikh’s support in next year’s elections.

It is both notable and worrying in this regard that as recently as October, 2018 the Sheikh publicly pledged his full support for Infantino, saying that, "we will be fully supporting you to do your work at FIFA... You can count on us and you can count on Asia, Mr President."

Nor are our own officials immune. Australia’s role at governance level within Asia allows us to influence policy. But it must also be a forum to advocate for fundamental values that we believe in, none of which are more important than the basic human rights of our participant, irrespective of whether an election campaign is in train.

So, at the same time that the Australian and Thai governments are being heavily pressured to resolve the diplomatic issue, the AFC needs to be held accountable to ensure that "every effort" is being made and that no conflict exists which has the potential to undermine Hakeem’s freedom that he is legally entitled to.

The path forward to alleviate grave concerns is for the AFC to issue an immediate public statement of support and call on the Bahrain government to withdraw their extradition order and the government of Thailand to release Hakeem.

According to human rights organisations worldwide and particularly in the Gulf, public pressure and campaigning needs to be maintained and protest escalated.

So, well done and thank you to everyone who has taken the time to speak out, to share messages of support on social media and to write about Hakeem’s case.

Please maintain the rage and to our professional players, continue to stand up for your colleague.

Nothing less than his life depends on it.

My latest correspondence with Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa is below should you likewise feel moved to participate.

#SaveHakeem

Craig Foster is an Amnesty Human Rights and Refugee Ambassador

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Dear Sir,

I write in relation to the overdue and grossly inadequate statement made by the AFC in response to inquiries by football and human rights stakeholders regarding the ongoing detention of refugee and footballer Hakeem al-Araibi in Thailand pending possible extradition to Bahrain.

The second report by the FIFA Human Rights Advisory Board in November, 2018 at 2.7, ‘Strengthening FIFA’s Approach to Engagement and Communication on Human Rights’, recommended that ‘affected stakeholders or their representatives need to receive prompt information about how risks to their personal safety are being handled’.

Hakeem al-Araibi and his representatives are entitled to accurate, timely and detailed information regarding the actions being undertaken by the AFC. I note also that no support has been provided to Hakeem by the AFC.

The AFC are dutybound under obligations imposed by Article 3 of the AFC and FIFA Statutes to not only uphold Hakeem’s internationally-recognised human rights but to ‘strive to promote the protection of these rights.’

The FIFA Human Rights Policy 2017 (7) under which all FIFA bodies are bound states that where:

‘..national laws and regulations (Bahrain and Thailand) and international human rights standards differ or are in conflict with each other, FIFA will follow the higher standard.. (and) constructively engage with the relevant authorities and other stakeholders and make every effort to uphold its international human rights responsibilities.’ (parenthesis added)

Further, FIFA (and the AFC) must ‘apply effective leverage.. where this relates to strengthening human rights in or through football.’ (FIFA Human Rights Policy (4)).

The ‘relevant authorities and other stakeholders’ pertaining to Hakeem al-Araibi’s case are the following:

1. The government of Thailand;
2. The Football Association of Thailand;
3. The Bahrain government;
4. Bahrain Football Association;
5. The Australian government;
6. Football Federation Australia;
7. Interpol;
8. The AFC;
9. FIFA.

Accordingly, I submit the following questions:
1. As a vice president of FIFA, do you endorse FIFA’s call for Hakeem to be allowed safe return to Australia?
2. As president of the AFC, do you support the immediate return of Hakeem to Australia under the AFC Statutes, Article 3?
3. Given that the human rights standards of the AFC and Bahrain government differ and are in conflict with each other, how are you following the higher standard, constructively engaging and applying leverage with:
(i) the Bahrain government to promote the protection of Hakeem’s human rights?
(ii) the Bahrain government through the Bahrain FA to promote the protection of Hakeem’s human rights?
4. Given that the human rights standards of the AFC and government of Thailand differ and are in conflict with each other, how are you following the higher standard, constructively engaging and applying leverage with:
(i) the Thai government to promote the protection of Hakeem’s human rights?
(ii) the Thai government through the Football Association of Thailand to promote the protection of Hakeem’s human rights?
5. Have you communicated directly to the Bahrain government your request as President of the AFC for the extradition order for Hakeem al-Araibi to be immediately withdrawn?
6. Will you issue a statement on behalf of the AFC calling for the withdrawal of the Bahrain government’s extradition order and Hakeem al-Araibi’s immediate release by the government of Thailand pursuant to your obligations as President of the AFC?
The position of AFC President now carries a non-negotiable duty to do everything possible to uphold the human rights of all in football and the football community has a right to ensure this duty is being carried out to its fullest extent.

Hakeem al-Araibi’s supporters and human rights defenders expect that you comply with your obligations to the maximum extent possible or step down to enable his legal entitlements under international law to be promoted and protected.

Yours in Football,

Craig Foster
Former Australian International
Sydney, Australia
Craig.foster@sbs.com.au