by Adam Shapiro

The World Cup has come down to the final four – two teams from Europe and two from South America – featuring some of the most prominent powerhouses of world football.  This year, the drama on the pitch has been compelling and surely the final two matches will yield more memories for players and fans alike.

However, as dramatic as the competition has been, there are even more profound human stories occurring off the pitch in each of the participating countries, in particular for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk.  For the last month, Front Line Defenders, an international human rights organization focused on safety and security for HRDs, and Brazilian partners Justiça Global and Terra de Direitos, have been highlighting the courageous and critical work of HRDs and the risks they face in defending the rights of others.

The campaign examines the situation of human rights defenders at risk both in Brazil and in the participating countries through two dedicated websites, one for the global campaign, and the other for Brazilian campaign, Since the beginning of the campaign, we have profiled 42 HRDs and supported their work on social media. As the tournament continues, Front Line Defenders and our campaign partners are using this opportunity to highlight a wide range of human rights issues, including many that arise in the preparation for mega-events.

The upcoming semifinal match participants (Brazil v. Germany and Argentina v. Netherlands) offer a snapshot of the human rights issues faced in these countries and particular HRDs featured in the campaign.


For the host country, our partners in Brazil have chosen a HRD ‘team’ of 11 HRDs at risk – covering a wide range of human rights issues across the country. One is Cacique Babau, the leader of the Serra do Padeiro Tupinambá village, located in the municipality of Buerarema, in Bahia. In their struggle for land rights, the Tupinambás have been targeted in a vicious campaign of criminalization, defamation, threats, torture and attempted murders that involve the state, big farmers and the mass media. These abuses are similar to those targeted through WITNESS’s work on forced evictions and police brutality in Brazil.


In the case of Germany, the campaign focuses on the impact of the business activities of FinFisher, a German company and their relationship to the security of a HRD in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Ahmed Mansour.  Ahmed, a blogger, is campaigning for greater rights and freedom of expression in the UAE, and has been arrested and physically attacked as a result. FinFisher makes FinSpy software, which allows for enhanced digital surveillance of civilians and has been sold to repressive governments, including the UAE. It appears Ahmed has been a direct target of digital surveillance by his government.


Argentina’s Félix Díaz is a leader of the indigenous Qom community in the far north of the country, which faces the threat of losing ancestral land to the state.  In an effort to eliminate protest and further marginalize the community, Félix has been physically attacked, his family has been threatened, and he faces ongoing legal harassment.

The Netherlands:

In The Netherlands, Chekh El Mouthena Marrakchy, a refugee from Western Sahara, has been leading a protest movement by refugees in the Netherlands and throughout Europe for greater protection and rights for asylum seekers.  Constantly under surveillance, and harassed by the authorities, Mouthena and fellow refugees are exposing Dutch and European duplicity when it comes to issues around immigration and political asylum.

The attention that mega sporting events receive from the media and the public is a good opportunity to try to provide opportunities for visibility for HRDs at risk, and hopefully create greater awareness amongst sports fans who may not otherwise consider human rights issues.  Though we live in a world in which athletes make millions of dollars and sports are featured 24/7 in media coverage, we believe that HRDs are the real role models and everyday heroes who should receive the attention – not for themselves, but for the issues for which they struggle.  Imagine what a ‘beautiful game’ that would be!

You can join the campaign by visiting and follow Front Line Defenders on Twitter (@FrontLineHRD) and Facebook to help promote these HRDs on social media.

Adam Shapiro is the Head of Campaigns at Front Line Defenders, an Irish international human rights organization. He can be reached at Join the campaign at and follow Front Line Defenders work at 

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