Sports Boycotts and International Law

Sport is often seen as a popular instrument used to project the image of a country to a global audience. There are additional benefits of hosting major sporting events which include – fuelling of the country’s economy, worldwide press and media coverage, and allowing a country’s athletes an opportunity to make a mark on the global stage. There have been several instances of this, the most relevant being Qatar’s organisation of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It can be well construed that it is part of its strategy to use sport as a domestic and foreign policy tool that contributes to national security and also for gaining soft power. 

Aside from Qatar’s contemporary relevance, in the past, Japan hosting the 1964 Summer Olympics allowed for an avenue for them to make a grand re-entry after the wartime cancellation of the games in 1940. There was an initiation of a massive construction program and a renewed emphasis on Japan’s commitment to the international organisations and human rights. Additionally, in the 1977 Republic of South Africa’s House of Assembly debates, the minister of Sport, Piet Koornhof, admitted that ‘play and sport are strong enough to cause political and economic relations to flourish and collapse’.

Sports Boycotts Amounting to Economic Sanctions

Sport boycotts have been considered to be an effective medium by which the political intentions of a nation can be symbolically inferred, where it also believed to be relatively costless as compared to war or any other sanctions. However, the usage of sports as protest measures or its abuse can be distinctively made out on the basis of the rules and principles of Customary International Law (“CIL”). 

The sports boycotts imposed on Yugoslavia in the 1992 European Soccer Championship, and on South Africa during the apartheid regime, were in the nature of non-military sanctions for reasons not intrinsic to sports. However, the financial transactions involved in professional sport characterise it to be an economic activity. For the same reason, it has been argued that sports boycotts constitute unlawful economic sanctions within the framework of international law. 

The Legality of Economic Sanctions

Although there is no universal definition for the phrase, ‘economic sanctions’, it has been interpreted to mean ‘economic measures taken with an intent to coerce another state to change some policy or practice’. Within the scope of Article 41 of the UN Charter, they have been meant to be “measures not involving the use of armed force employed to give effect to the decisions of the UNSC”.  

In the case of Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaraguathe ICJ alluded to ‘measures which do not constitute an armed attack but nevertheless involve a use of force’ and found it necessary to distinguish the gravest forms of the use of force from other less grave forms. For a state action to constitute use of force it should reach the requisite threshold. This argument has also been further substantiated  by the ICJ in the Fisheries Jurisdiction case between Spain and Canada. Here, Canada had arrested certain Spanish vessels on the high seas, and Spain brought a claim before the ICJ, claiming a violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. However, the ICJ ruled that the use of force requires a particular threshold to be met and a minimum use of force does not qualify that requisite threshold for the violation of Article 2(4). 

Consequently, there are two conditions that ought to be fulfilled to establish an Article 2(4) violation. First, there should either be a threat or use of force; and second, the said threat or use of force must lead to a consequence of violating a State’s territorial integrity or political independence, or should be inconsistent with the purposes of the UN Charter. The purpose of the Charter, as envisaged in Article 1, is to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of economic or social character. Unilateral economic sanctions do not amount to procedures of pacific settlement as envisaged under Chapter VI of the Charter that rests an obligation on the member states to resolve international disputes peacefully by keeping intact peace, security and justice. 

The principle of “use of force” enshrined under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter has been realised  in various international instruments, such as the Friendly Relations Declaration of 1970, and the Declaration on Inadmissibility of Intervention of 1965. They have addressed the issue of coercive economic conduct and have urged States not to use economic, political or other measures to coerce another State for the purposes of subordination of the latter’s sovereign rights. Furthermore, in 1995, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution on ‘Economic measures as means of Political and Economic coercion against developing countries’, where they exhorted the international community to adopt urgent and effective measures to eliminate the use of unilateral coercive economic measures against the developing countries, that are not authorised by the relevant organs of the United Nations or inconsistent with the principles contained in the UN Charter. Even though such resolutions are not binding, they represent the expectations of the international community and provide evidence on the norms of CIL. 


The Drafting Subcommittee at the 1945 UN Conference on International Organisation rejected Brazil’s amendment to Article 2(4) that would have included economic forms of coercion within the scope of the phrase, ‘use of force’. Following the conclusion warranted by the travaux preparatoires of the Charter, the intention of the phrases under Article 2(4) was not to be restrictive but to give more specific guarantees to the weaker States. The interpretation of ‘force’ under Article 2(4) should be open ended such that it is effective as a behavioural norm and accommodative of the changing times. This would also allow bringing sports boycotts imposed in the nature of unlawful economic sanctions within its purview. The UN Charter should thus be open to the evolution of new norms that are, both, responsive to developments and cautious of relevant dangers.

Philip Ashok Alex is an undergraduate student at National Law University, Delhi, who takes a keen interest in the field of public international law and the developments therein.

Image: The Guardian.

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