Human Rights: UN experts welcome European Court ruling upholding rights of women athletes in Semenya v. Switzerland

Geneva, 17 July, 2023.- UN experts* today welcomed the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that States must ensure access to effective remedies for human rights violations related to rules governing eligibility to compete in women’s sports.

“Sport should not be affected by discrimination,” the UN experts said. “All women should be able to participate on an equal basis, and their sex characteristics should not be used as a reason to exclude them.”

The experts stressed that States have an obligation under international human rights law to protect women athletes, including those with different sex characteristics, from being subjected to medical examinations and interventions that violate the principles of human dignity, equality, autonomy, and physical and psychological integrity of persons.

“Non-State actors also hold a responsibility to respect international human rights standards, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” the experts said. “They must refrain from interventions that present women with the perverse choice of either compromising their health and sense of self, identity and integrity as women by accepting the interventions, or compromising their careers and indeed their livelihoods and socio-economic well-being by rejecting them.”

The experts pointed out that such interventions are often based on gender and racial stereotypes about who is a woman in general and who is a woman athlete in particular.

“The stereotypes faced by women athletes are narrow and essentialist,” they said. “There is a distinct impact on women of colour/*Black women, women of African descent and women athletes who are discriminated against because of their colour, social status and beliefs, among other prohibited grounds, particularly in relation to athletes from the Global South.”

The experts called on States and sports organisations at international, regional and national levels to act urgently to review eligibility rules for women’s sports in line with human rights standards and the International Olympic Committee’s Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations.

“They must uphold the human rights of female athletes affected by these rules, in light of the European Court’s ruling and based on existing human rights obligations and responsibilities,” the UN experts said.

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