Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has all the makings of a great underdog story. A small country from a region that has has traditionally been a soccer backwater throws together an ambitious plan to build nine new stadiums. Despite its inhospitable climate, it proposes a space-age cooling system that will allow players and spectators alike the ability to enjoy the game in comfort. Its national team languishes in the middle of FIFA’s rankings, but has bigger aspirations. Through an exhaustive bidding process, little Qatar beats out international powerhouses South Korea, Japan, Australia, and even the United States.
The real story of the the Qatari bid for the World Cup, however, is one of bribery, half-truths, and corruption. In sum, Qatar used its oil wealth to buy votes and FIFA executives looked past the flaws in the voting process, a non-existent plan to air condition stadiums, and Qatar’s record of human rights violations in favor of a gravy train. One example demonstrates the particularly ludicrous nature of Qatar’s bid: the city that will host the stadium that will host the World Cup final doesn’t even exist yet. They plan to build it from scratch (they clearly haven’t read James Scott).
Predictably, the massive infrastructure needed for the World Cup is being built on the back of migrant workers, with lethal consequences. A report by the International Trade Union Confederation states that at least 1,200 workers have already died, and the number is likely to reach 4,000 by 2022 (the wording is a bit unclear as to whether 4,000 more workers will die or if 4,000 will be the final total). Even this estimate, though, is conservative because it’s working off deaths reported by the Indian and Nepalese embassies. Some smaller worker populations hail from other countries and many deaths likely go unreported. The mix of “subhuman” working conditions, long hours in the heat, and a lack of access to medical care has proved disastrous. As a comparison, the most deadly sporting event in the last decade and a half was the Sochi Olympics, which caused the deaths of sixty workers.
Scholars have a range of definitions for what constitutes a mass killing, with most falling in the 500-1000 intentional deaths per year range. Is FIFA then a mass killer? That question in turn prompts two more, the first of which is: from a definitional standpoint, what kinds of deaths count as killing? This is definitely a difficult question to answer. In his thesis, Sean Langberg defines killing narrowly. For him, it’s only deaths caused by physical violence that count toward the threshold of 1,000. Alternatively, in my own thesis, I see mass killing as including a wider range of death experiences. Starvation or death through disease may be just as central to perpetrators’ strategies as physical killing itself. In this case, I think it’s fair to say that the actions of construction directors (hired by Qatar/FIFA) can be included in the tallying of potential mass killing deaths because they are creating conditions in which they can reasonably expect workers (aka civilians) to be killed.
If you follow my initial line of inquiry, I think the second issue you run across is differentiating structural violence (which should be noted can actually be lethal) from the physical violence of mass killing. Some may see the two as one in the same, but I think this viewpoint stems from an attempt to use mass killing as a moral rather than an analytic categorization. For example, the ebola outbreak in West Africa may claim more than a thousand lives because of poor sanitary conditions and a dearth of medical facilities. This surely classifies as structural violence if we follow Galtung’s framework, but it shares few characteristics with the dynamics of mass violence against civilians. I think including poverty or other instances of structural violence in categorizations of mass killing is unproductive because it obfuscates more than it clarifies. Poverty kills for a variety of reasons and far more civilians die each year worldwide because of unorganized criminal violence than political violence, but neither qualify as a mass killing because it’s hard to locate a specific perpetrator or intentionality. Neither is lacking in Qatar.
So is FIFA a mass killer? I have to say I’m torn. On the one hand the deaths are a result of a uniquely deliberate strategy led by a powerful institution to accomplish a specific goal, mirroring the dynamics, and particularly the instrumentality, of mass killing. But on the other, it is inescapable that the dynamics of mass killing, as we imagine them, always involve an armed group. In my thesis, I write that for a mass killing to qualify as such, not only must the death threshold be met, but that 20% of civilians must experience violent deaths. It’s an inescapably arbitrary number, but just like the 1,000 death overall threshold, it is needed to distinguish mass killing as a distinct concept from related phenomena. However, I think it’s possible to make a strong case for the existence of “corporate mass killing”, of which Qatar would be an example. Parsing out the differences in the dynamics between this hypothetical category and existing ones is a very worthy topic for further investigation.
As I’ve already implied, I think calling FIFA a mass killer is probably technically incorrect. First off, the death toll will probably fall short of the 1,000 a year mark, but more importantly, workers are not being killed in the context of violent conflict. Morally though, I think there is a case to be made that what’s happening in Qatar is even more egregious than killing of civilians in war on the same scale. There is no ideology that makes them migrant workers seemingly legitimate targets, no rampant fear that causes combatants to lash out. The fog of war, and thus plausible deniability, doesn’t exist. FIFA and the Qatari government have decided that the prestige of holding a World Cup and the potential for cheap labor outweighs the massive human consequences. Shame on them.