The Olympic Truce: Tradition or International Law?

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Ekécheiria (“laying down of arms”) was a noble tradition of antiquity, by which Greek city-states were to observe a sacred truce during the Olympics. This truce, born of a treaty between the polis of Elis, Pisa and Sparta, extended from one week before the start to one week after the end of the classical Olympic Games, to allow contestants and attendees to arrive safely at Olympia, in the region of Elis, to participate in or watch the competitions, and then return in peace to their places of origin. Contrary to the widespread popular belief, the Greek polis did not cease their hostilities among themselves. Only the region of Elis was protected from invasion, while the other city-states had the obligation not to interfere with the realization of the Games or prevent the passage of those who were going to or coming from Olympia.

When the Olympic Games, in their modern version, were reestablished in 1896, the institution of the Olympic Truce was not initially part of the event. It was “revived” only in 1992 through a symbolic “appeal” by the International Olympic Committee, at a time when athletes from the former Yugoslavia had unprecedented difficulties to attend the Barcelona Games amidst the Yugoslav Wars. The Olympic Truce had lost its original religious undertones, but it ensured continuity with its purpose: to guarantee safe passage for athletes and enthusiasts, no longer only from Greece but from all over the world, in order to take part in the Games.

However, the IOC, despite its multinational composition, is still a private association. The Truce became “something else” only in 1993, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted its Resolution 48/11. The UNGA linked the appeal by the IOC to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and “urge[d] Member States to observe the Olympic Truce from the seventh day before the opening and the seventh day following the closing of each of the Olympic Games”.

Ever since then, the UNGA has developed the habit of adopting resolutions renewing its call to States to observe the Olympic Truce on the occasion of each Summer and Winter Olympics. Without exception, these resolutions have been adopted by consensus, and it has become expected for them to be introduced by the State hosting the next Olympiad and co-sponsored by a vast majority of the international community. Over the years, these resolutions have become more extensive and specific in their terms. In Resolution 56/75 of 2002, it was specified that the Truce was to be observed “by ensuring the safe passage and participation of athletes at the Games”. More precisely, in Resolution 76/13 of 2021, States were urged “in particular, to ensure the safe passage, access and participation of athletes, officials and all other accredited persons taking part in the Games, and to contribute through other appropriate measures to the safe organization of the Games”.

A well-grounded definition of the (legal?) content of the Olympic Truce is essential to unravel its meaning today. To transpose this institution from classical antiquity to the modern world may seem, at first glance, an anachronism. In modern international law, where the prohibition of the use of force is a norm of universal scope, the requirement of observance of a general temporary armistice, overlapped with the permanent mandate to settle all disputes by peaceful means, would be superfluous and redundant. Therefore, in order to give a coherent meaning to the Truce, it is necessary to specify what it is and what it is not.

Recalling the earlier clarification, the Olympic Truce was never the cease-fire for all conflicts that it is sometimes believed to be. Its scope was rather functional: it encompassed acts that could obstruct the normal unfolding of the Games, while wars in general remained lawful under the international legal order of antiquity. Today, at a time when war is generally and permanently prohibited under the UN Charter, it would make no sense to ascribe to the Olympic Truce the mandate of a temporary cease-fire that it did not have in ancient times either. The use of force as aggression is always forbidden, even outside the Truce period, while the use of force as self-defense is permitted at all times, even within the Truce period.

The Olympic Truce points to a mandate directed at States to refrain from taking any action that might hinder or prevent a person from attending the Games.

This begs the question: given that the resolutions of the UNGA have no normative force, is the Olympic Truce a rule of international law or merely a symbolic gesture? Caution should be exercised before jumping to conclusions. An UNGA resolution does not, in itself, create international law, not even when it is regularly reiterated, and not even when it is adopted without any opposition. However, the fact that these resolutions have become an automatic and uncontested habit could be construed as an indication that suggests the gestation of opinio juris, as has so often happened with UNGA resolutions that shared these characteristics. If a consistent dose of State practice can be found to accommodate this apparent legal perception, then we have before us a customary norm, or at least one in formation.

The Olympic Truce has a rich history of promoting peace through sport. The 2021 UNGA resolution served to ensure that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, beyond being characterized as an act of aggression in violation of the UN Charter (as described by UNGA Resol. ES-11/1), was also condemned as a breach of the Truce, because of the implications it had for Ukrainian athletes and enthusiasts that planned to make it to the Games held in Beijing and back home. The moral imperative the Truce reflects is incontrovertible, but it is not so simple to determine whether the support that State delegates express before each Games at the UNGA is a good-will display or the manifestation of an opinio juris that can be translated into a customary rule. Moreover, while it is clear that its scope is functional (limited to the specific purposes of the normal conduct of the Games), its content is not yet fully determined.

In the terms in which the Olympic Truce is formulated, it seems to call for the lifting of migratory restrictions for departure, entry and transit through State territory, insofar as necessary to get to and return from the host State. This would call for Sates to temporarily relinquish important regulatory powers in migratory matters, except when indispensable to preserve essential interests related to sanitary or national security concerns. This consideration warrants entertaining the idea of the creation of an “Olympic visa” designed to ensure participation in the Games without any obstacle posed by international borders, valid only during the Truce period.

The theoretical duty to allow residents or nationals of one State to participate in the Olympic Games taking place in another State could entail, in some cases, the need to grant exceptions to bureaucratic obstacles for obtaining identification and/or travel documents and permits, and the exemption from foreign exchange restrictions that could prevent the acquisition of foreign currency to cover expenses abroad.

In a situation of armed conflict, observance of the Truce may imply for belligerents, both States and non-State actors, the need to create and respect safe corridors allowing exit or transit through the territory of warring States. This obligation would reinforce existing duties under international humanitarian law that protect persons not taking part in hostilities. One might even consider a duty to temporarily exempt athletes from general conscriptions during the Olympic Truce, so that they may be able to be present at the competitions.

Furthermore, a hypothetical duty to cooperate with the organization of the Olympic Games could also involve the obligation to collaborate with the host State’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies to prevent possible terrorist attacks. Moreover, this alleged “duty to cooperate” might even call into question the lawfulness of the established practice of boycotting an Olympiad in protest against certain policies of the host State. After all, the decision taken by a State not to send a national delegation to an Olympiad is certainly incompatible with a mandate to “ensure the participation of athletes” in the Games.

The Olympic Truce was definitely born as a rule of a primitive, early international legal order; it was the product of a treaty between three Greek city-states in ancient times. It seems increasingly likely that when we speak of the Olympic Truce today, we are speaking once again, two millennia later, of a nascent international legal norm, the specific content of which will be dictated by State practice over time.

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José Alves says

October 20, 2022

Super interesting read, Tomás! But I’m wondering what is the added value of calling Olympic truces an international legal norm, especially in a time when states have been disregarding some fundamental rules of International Law (e.g, prohibition on the use of force, territorial integrity, etc).

Tomás M Guisado Litterio says

October 20, 2022

Thank you for your comment, José! I believe the answer to your question would be Professor Louis Henkins' famous statement: "Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all of the time". Despite the fact that gross violations of international law stand out, most States do their best to observe their obligations under international law. That's why I believe it's important to identify customary rules in formation, such as the Olympic Truce. Thanks again for your interest!