PtG Comment 24.10.2011

The politics of the Olympic Truce

Comment: Last week, the United Nations' General Assembly passed the Olympic Truce resolution. The question is whether the Olympic Truce has any importance at all.

Last week, the United Nations' General Assembly passed the resolution for the Olympic Truce resolution - just as the  UN has done since 1993. The resolution was presented to the General Assembly by Sebastian Coe and it was passed by consensus without voting.

At the moment all UN member states appear to support the resolution. British diplomats were working until the last minute on getting Syria and Iran on-board. The previous week, only 154 countries supported the resolution which means that 39 countries have joined  within the space of  only a few days. This certainly indicates good diplomatic skills but the question is whether the Olympic Truce has any importance at all? What is the point of ceasefires around the Olympics?

The first formal UN support for the idea of an Olympic ceasefire came with a resolution in 1993 which among other things allowed athletes from the former Yugoslavia to attend the winter games in Lillehammer in 1994. But the original idea of a ceasefire around the Olympics dates back to the Olympic Games of the Antiquity which had their own ceasefire called Ekcheiria.

During the Antiquity, the Olympic Games took place 293 times from 776 BC to 393 AD without one single cancellation(!). In the beginning, the truce covered the period from one month before the games till one month after the games. Later the period was extended to two months before and after the games. Its main objective was to ensure that participants and spectators could travel safely to and from the games. However, the ceasefires only applied in certain areas and for a limited time. They did not end wars.

Growing support

Since 1993, all hosts of Olympic Games have asked the international community to implement a truce during the games, and every time the UN has passed a resolution that supports the principle of such ceasefires. The ceasefire resolutions have not been put to a vote, but for each resolution a growing number of member states have supported the resolution.

In 1993, 121 member states supported the resolution. Before the Winter Games in Torino in 2006, it was the first time that all of the then 191 UN member states supported the ceasefire resolution. In 2003, before the Summer Games in Athens, 190 out of 191 member states supported the resolution. Iraq was unable to support it as the country had been suspended from the UN.

Ceasefire games around the Beijing Olympics

It is difficult to determine whether all UN member states have supported resolutions for the Olympic Truce because they believe they are too important not to pass, or because the resolutions are of such marginal importance that it has no political consequences to support them.

However, the previous two resolutions (2007 and 2009) indicate that politics also plays a role in connection with the Olympic Truce. (Only) 183 member states supported the ceasefire resolution in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. It was a drop in support since the previous resolution and meant that nine countries declined to support the resolution (By that time there were 192 UN member states).

When it comes to the United Nations' General Assembly, it often happens that member countries either lack the capacity to keep up with all resolutions or simply forget to sign up for them.

However, that is unlikely to be the case here: The nine countries that did not support the resolution for the Olympic Truce all recognize Taiwan as an independent state. In other words, they were in opposition to China - an opposition which appear to have been expressed through this case. Even though the majority of the 24 countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent state also signed the Olympic Truce, it is not a coincidence that Kiribati, Malawi, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Paraguay, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Sao Tome & Principe, the Salomon Islands and Tuvalu did not support the resolution.

We know that China and Taiwan compete for the favours of several countries in the West Indian islands by offering them new cricket fields. That a number of countries in this group of non-signatories had received cricket fields from Taiwan, can be one of the reasons that China did not a get a full house for its ceasefire resolution.

Canadian flop

In 2009, only 154 nations supported the Olympic Truce. It was a significant reduction in support since the Olympic Games in Torino and is difficult to explain as the ceasefire resolutions before winter games normally get more support than the ceasefire resolutions before summer games. This development was interesting both for the IOC and for those trying to understand the role of the IOC within the UN system.

On the same day that the UN passed the Olympic Truce for the Vancouver Olympics, there was also a proposal on the table to give the IOC status as an observer within the UN system. The IOC obtained that status but Canada decided not to sign up as sponsors for the proposal, and it appears that Norway made the same decision.

It is difficult to determine whether Canada's actions on the issue of IOC's observer status lead to decreased support for the ceasefire resolution. Canada still has not explained why it did not support the IOC's attempt to become UN observers.

Protests against the Olympic Games in London?

That all UN member states have supported the recent resolution for the Olympic Truce is first of all a victory for British diplomats and the organising committee for the London Games. Whether the  ceasefire resolution means anything, we will only find out during the games next year. So far, we still have fresh memories of the war that broke out between Georgia and Russia on the opening day of the Beijing Olympics... 

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sporten uutholdelige letthet' on Tuesday 18 October 2011. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on