Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on world leaders to boycott next month's opening ceremony of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia unless Russian President Vladimir Putin takes steps to protect Syrian civilians

In a statement released on May 21, HRW executive director Kenneth Roth said, “In hosting one of the most televised events in the world, Russia is courting world public opinion and looking for respect.” 

“World leaders should signal to President Putin that unless he changes track and acts to end atrocities by Russian and Syrian forces in Syria, they won’t be in their seats in the VIP box with him on opening night,” Roth added.

The statement notes that Russia is a key military backer of the Syrian government in the country's seven-year war, and HRW argued that Moscow's responsibility in the suffering of Syrian civilians should not be overlooked.

As part of a joint military alliance, Russia shares responsibility, not only for violations its forces perpetrate directly, but also for those committed by its ally, the statement says.  Russian-Syrian joint operations have reportedly caused thousands of civilian casualties.

According to the statement, Human Rights Watch has documented Russian-Syrian airstrikes that failed to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and that struck civilian objects, including schools, hospitals, and residential areas.  

The World Cup is expected to be watched on television by billions of people around the world.

"World leaders should not allow a sporting event to gloss over a pattern of atrocities in Syria that now looms over 2 million civilians," Roth said.

In a report published on May 15, HRW said FIFA, world soccer's governing body, should use its influence and bring up with the Russian authorities issues such as labor rights abuses, restrictions on basic freedoms, and the current crackdown on human rights activists.