The AFC president is obligated to support Hakeem al-Araibi, or resign

Thai prison guards lead Hakeem al-Araibi, centre from a court house in Bangkok Source: AAP

Respect for the basic human rights of everyone involved in football is non-negotiable. Since last year, this principle is entrenched in the statutes of governing bodies globally - from FIFA down through the AFC and the FFA.

These policies and the commitment of everyone in football, all of us, are being put to the test in the case of Melbourne-based refugee - former Bahraini international and Pascoe Vale FC player - Hakeem al-Araibi, who is being held in detention in Thailand pending possible extradition to Bahrain contrary to international law.

It has been heartening to see so many provide support, including his club Pascoe Vale FC, FIFA, the Australian government, PFA, FFA, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and many former players, including Socceroos captains.

But, despite a public statement by FIFA calling for the release of al-Araibi, one organisation is conspicuous by the absence of its public support, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

This is an important test case regarding football governance globally and as you will see below, I am asking you to take two actions: add your photo to social media in support of the #SaveHakeem campaign and write directly to the AFC president.

Moreover, it is particularly important for Asian football because our region has immense challenges in respecting human rights under international law - to be fair, so does Australia, something I made clear in my piece last Monday on World Human Rights Day in my role as an Amnesty Ambassador for Human Rights and Refugees).

Rising to high office within football in past decades brought little obligation to uphold, or even be seen to uphold human rights, and a blind eye could be turned by those in power to transgressions whether in their own country, their member federations or within global football operations.

That has now changed, where every office bearer within football are duty bound to uphold the obligations imposed by FIFA in May, 2017.

This poses a new challenge for many, including the current AFC president and member of the Bahrain royal family, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa - who is at the centre of the seminal case.

The AFC President has personal history with Hakeem in his former role as president of the Bahrain FA, where Hakeem was publicly critical of the Sheikh’s alleged role in a crackdown on athletes during the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011.

He is also part of the Bahrain Royal family, which leaves many of us deeply concerned that this political and personal context may override the obligations of the office.

And a 25-year-old, refugee’s life is in the balance.

Worryingly in this context, the AFC have only said that they are ‘monitoring the situation’ and have issued no public statement.

This is unacceptable from the regional Confederation, when the rights of a registered player from a member federation are being breached. 

What, then are the new obligations that the AFC president is bound to uphold and that we may hold him accountable to?

In 2017, FIFA implemented a new human rights policy which commits them to uphold ‘all internationally recognised human rights’, to ‘apply effective leverage’ to strengthen respect for human rights ‘in or through football’ and where national laws conflict with recognised rights, to ‘constructively engage with the relevant authorities and ... make every effort to uphold its international human rights responsibilities.’ 

Further, under Pillar 1(9) to ‘take(s) measures to embed respect for human rights within ... its member associations.’

Following this, the AFC statutes 2018, Chapter 1 (3) Human Rights, Neutrality and Non-Discrimination now stipulate that the organisation is ‘committed to respecting all internationally-recognised human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights.’

A fundamental principle of international human rights law is the non-refoulement (forcible return) of refugees to a country from which they have sought asylum under both the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951 and the UN Convention against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment 1987.

The new obligations will potentially cause conflicts between office bearers from the AFC and government officials on human rights policy.

Such is the case for Sheikh Salman. His own Bahraini Government is seeking extradition of Hakeem contrary to the international law that he must uphold.

Managing this conflict would mean one of two things.

Either publicly endorsing FIFA’s stance, issuing a statement supporting Hakeem and advocating for the Bahrain government to withdraw their extradition request, or resigning from the position if unable to do so.

It is his choice, but the choice must be made.

Accordingly, I have added my voice in writing to all those seeking action from the AFC and provided the letter below should you feel moved to do likewise on the basis that Hakeem is part of our ‘football family’.

It is a term we use very freely but, I ask you, what value does it have if a player from an NPL club, a refugee granted asylum from persecution and possible torture in Bahrain if returned, cannot rely on us? 

We are his Australian family.

This also goes for our global football family, of course. Hakeem is a former international, so every current and former player should be supporting him worldwide and, we hope, our entire global community.

Additionally, I hope you will agree to take a photo as have Lucy and I, below, to add to the #SaveHakeem campaign on social media to provide public pressure for action.

Human rights groups assure us that this public campaign does and is making a difference.


Please support Hakeem and to demonstrate to world football that Australia believes in and supports the game’s commitment to human rights and that we will hold all in the game accountable to it.

In this way, together we can make a strong statement about the power of football to create social change and to uphold the rights of people everywhere.


Craig Foster's letter
Craig Foster's letter