System of third party ownership totally commodifies players – UN Special Rapporteur

System of third party ownership totally commodifies players – UN Special Rapporteur

The trafficking of athletes in sport is a global issue. Youth from underprivileged backgrounds are easy prey for ruthless individuals or organizations wanting to exploit their dream of escaping a life of poverty.

The pretense of a professional career in sport is being used by unscrupulous individuals and fake agents to recruit young men and women into an underworld of illegal migration and crime, resulting in serious breaches of human rights.

The illustrious human rights advocate and lawyer Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, currently serving as the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Sale and Sexual Exploitation of Children, has been relentless in her fight against the discrimination and violence of the most vulnerable groups, and has over the years been active in promoting children’s rights.

In her recent report, prepared pursuant to Human Rights Council Resolutions 7/13 and 34/16, the Special Rapporteur included a thematic study on the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of sports.

We caught up with her to talk about the role of the Special Rapporteur, actions that can be taken to combat trafficking in sports, and the opportunities and threats facing the flourishing women’s football.


  1. Few people outside the United Nations system are familiar with the role of the “Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children” Could you please tell us what this entails, and how one becomes a “Special Rapporteur”?

The role of the UNSR is to assist States in putting an end to these heinous crimes by identifying new patterns of abuse and exploitation and making recommendations on strategies and measures on prevention, accountability of criminals and aspects relating to the rehabilitation and recovery of victims. Country visits, thematic studies and communicating concerns to Governments about concrete cases are amongst the primary working tools.

The target audience is not only Governments, but also the private sector, and society at large, all of whom can be game changers. As mandate holder, I want to ensure that children are actively involved and participate in the design and monitoring of protection strategies and that their views are taken into account.

Becoming a SR is in the first place a question of choice, of passion and the belief that contributing to increased awareness of the prevalence of these scourges and how it should be eradicated can make a difference in the lives of millions of children. UN SR’s are independent experts, not part of the UN hierarchy, are unremunerated and therefore entirely independent in their judgment and actions.

Decisions to appoint SR’s are taken by the Human Rights Council of the UN, on the basis of demonstrated knowledge and commitment. The Mandate of a UNSR is 3 years, renewable only once. I was appointed in 2014, so I will end my mandate next year.

  1. You have worked many years in the field of human rights and have been a strong advocate for the wellbeing of children and the protection of their rights. What would you consider to be the highlight of your career so far?

The first was when as a lawyer I was working on cases in the European Court of Human Rights. I dealt with a case of a child victim of sexual abuse, who under national law was powerless to ensure the conviction of her rapist, moreover a member of her family. Thanks to the development of the concept of “positive obligations”, to which I contributed, the State could no longer hide behind existing legislation and needed to be pro-active to ensure the criminal’s accountability by changing the legislation!

The second was as Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe when the Council of Europe’s Convention on the protection of children and Sexual abuse was adopted and opened for signature in Lanzarote in 2007. I had worked so hard to make this happen, together with an incredibly committed team, and seeing Governments put their signature under these far reaching and promising safeguards was a real highlight.

But highlights in this area are not necessarily only positive experiences. Some encounters are indelible in my memory. As UN SR I met disabled children in institutions, tied to their beds for lack of trained staff, a young migrant football player stuck in a legal and factual limbo, a child victim of sexual violence whose personality appeared to be shattered forever.

  1. As Special Rapporteur you are mandated to report on a specific topic. What made you decide to focus your research on the subject of, “Protecting children from sale and sexual exploitation in the context of sports”?

Again in my career as a lawyer working for the European Court of Human Rights, I had dealt with a case denouncing the transfer mechanism of young football players as amounting to a form of slavery. Also, I am aware that sexual abuse occurs in every setting, and that sports clubs are no exceptions. Because of the power imbalance between coaches and young athletes the latter are particularly vulnerable. I felt it was important to explore more in depth the root factors and to help all concerned actors to develop responses and prevention mechanisms to deal with these human rights violations.

Egyptian children play soccer on a dusty field in Cairo, Egypt January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh – RC117767B380


  1. In recent years the world has come to learn of the level of sexual, emotional and physical abuse elite athletes face during their careers, but the illegal movement of children in pursuit of a career in sport is a neglected issue, despite “the State duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights,” as quoted from comma 28 of your report. Why do you think it hasn’t yet been given any similar attention so far?

Traditionally, human rights violations are the ones for which States can be held directly accountable. Corporate social responsibility in this context is relatively new. It has been developed in the UN through the adoption of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, calling on the private sector to adopt additional analogous standards where their activity could adversely impact certain groups of persons. Excessive reliance on the concept of autonomy and specificity has sometimes blurred this responsibility in the sports sector.

  1. In carrying out your research, what information most surprised or challenged your understanding of the trafficking in sport phenomenon?

As often in this area of child abuse and exploitation, the very large sums of money involved, that provide a source of profit to those who sell or traffic children, make counter measures challenging.

In the world of football 17.6 % of international transfers of children are made through intermediaries. The system of third party ownership totally commodifies the players, who have no power over their own fate.

  1. The FIFA Women’s World Cup just ended in France, what opportunities on one hand and threats on the other can we anticipate with the growing women’s game?

It was a great opportunity to witness top level sportswomen show their talents and perseverance.  It was an opportunity to do away with society’s bias and prejudice against women in the world of football which is still predominantly male and macho. Gender discrimination is still omnipresent in sports institutions especially at governance level. That includes the referees. Of course gender discrimination is still pervasive in society, and those who do not want to acknowledge the power of women and even their role in sports will continue to be there. But I bet you, there were many men in the galleries who can be multipliers in the advancement of the cause of women. Sport has no gender!

  1. Following the release of your report do you envisage the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to develop any actions with the aim of raising awareness of, and preventing human trafficking in sports?

The OHCHR has a general work stream on trafficking and has increased its focus on human rights and sports through for example its involvement in the Centre for Sports and Human Rights.

  1. As can be read in your report, with reference to the sale and sexual exploitation of children in the context of sport, you “look forward to be able to organize further consultations on this important subject.” Which national and international institutions and organizations – even non-governmental – do you think should collaborate and join forces in order to tackle the issue of human trafficking in sports?

Obviously, this is an area which all sports institutions should take very seriously. I hope to continue to work with major international Federations such as UEFA and FIFA but also in other sports’ sectors.  The other important stakeholder is the IOC, as I want to ensure that respecting and protecting the Rights of the Child are integral part of the bidding process for future host cities.

I will continue to join forces with the recently created Center for Sports and Human Rights, under the inspiring leadership of Mary Healy, whose mission includes the human rights of child athletes. We will make sure that children are unbeatable!


This article is part of a series of interviews conducted by Mission89 on child trafficking in football with key sports administrators, personalities, academics and educators.