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The Qatari Kafala System & International Inaction Open Access

In 2010, FIFA named Qatar as the host of the 2022 World Cup, despite the fact that Qatar is home to an institutionalized form of human trafficking called the kafala system. By choosing Qatar as the World Cup host, the international community implicitly accepted the kafala system and demonstrated a willingness to overlook the reality that Qatar’s $327 billion economy was built on the backs of enslaved migrant laborers. This case study seeks to answer the following question: How has this country—which relies on such an oppressive labor system—maintained strong political and economic relationships with countries that claim to champion civil liberties and human rights? This study tests two hypotheses: (1) The Qatari government has been able to maintain the kafala system without negatively impacting bilateral relations because foreign leaders have ignored the system’s abusive and exploitative qualities for reasons of economic self-interest. (2) The Qatari government has not substantively reformed the kafala system because the international community has no leverage over the Qatari government. To test the first hypothesis, the foreign policy doctrines of Qatar’s primary economic allies are evaluated to gauge commitment to the protection of human rights and civil liberties abroad. The stated doctrine of each country is compared to governmental policy regarding Qatar. This comparison reveals a disconnection between stated doctrine and its implementation that appears to reflect a prioritization of economic interests over human rights. For the second hypothesis, annual reports of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations are analyzed to track Qatar’s responsiveness to the ILO. The reports show that Qatar consistently violates conventions and disregards the Committee’s recommendations. Accordingly, the kafala system has persisted in part because the ILO cannot force Qatar to adhere to agreed-upon conventions. Given the complexity of global politics and economics, it is likely that a combination of factors have resulted in the impunity with which Qatar maintains its kafala system. This research presents preliminary evidence of two of these factors: the willingness of foreign leaders to overlook the human rights abuses of the kafala system to preserve their economic interests, and the impotence of international organizations set up to enforce accepted standards for labor practices and human rights. More research must be done to confirm these findings, to understand which of these two factors holds more explanatory power, and to reveal other contributing factors.

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