Point of Clarification: The Olympics and the Universality of the Geneva Conventions

          On July 27, over one billion people watched the commencement of the XXX Olympiad in London.  The Olympics, one of the oldest and most prestigious international sporting traditions, are a unique opportunity for nations to join together and watch the world’s best athletes compete for the coveted Olympic medals.  But what do the Olympics have to do with international humanitarian law? 

           Only a week prior to start of the 2012 London Olympics, the International Committee of the Red Cross welcomed the addition of the 195th and world’s newest country, South Sudan, to the Geneva Conventions, again making the treaties which serve as the foundation for the laws of armed conflict universal.  But many astute Olympic viewers have noticed media commentators referring to “204 nations” competing at the games, leading them to question how the ICRC can consider the Geneva Conventions universal if only 195 nations have ratified the treaty.

           To begin to answer this question, it is first important to discuss a conceptual distinction between a “sovereign State” and a “nation”.  A sovereign State under international law is an international sovereign entity with capacity to engage in foreign relations.  A nation on the other hand signifies a group of people who share a common bond, whether it be through identity, language, culture, religion or some other characteristic.  Accordingly, a nation is a more abstract conglomeration of individuals, whereas a sovereign State is a classification afforded to an entity meeting four specific legal criteria.  (Note: The terms “State” and “Nation” can often be used interchangeably but require recognition of the element of sovereignty implicit in these terms).

          The legal requirements for statehood are detailed in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, a multilateral treaty often seen as the paramount authority regulating the classification of States.  Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention articulates that for a territory to be considered a sovereign State, it must have: 1) a permanent population; 2) a defined territory; 3) a government; and 4) the capacity to enter into foreign relations with other States.  This fourth element, in general terms, means that the territory is recognized by the international community as an independent sovereign. Scholars have looked to other factors, such as whether the national collective maintains a military, has a common currency, or has the ability to make independent domestic policy; but these characteristics are not dispositive on the issue of sovereign statehood.  

          Based on the Montevideo criteria, there are currently 195 sovereign bodies recognized as States in the international community.[1]   Each of these 195 sovereign countries has ratified the Geneva Conventions.  Therefore, among sovereign States, there is universal acceptance of the Geneva Convention. 

          The International Olympic Committee (IOC), on the other hand has, recognized 204 National Olympic Committees.[2]   In order to be present at the Olympic Games the IOC must recognize a country’s National Olympic Committee. Interestingly, Article 30, Subsection 1 of the Olympic Charter states; “In the Olympic Charter, the expression “country” means an independent State recognized by the international community.”  This would seem to reflect international standards with regards to which territories are classified as States, but then how did the IOC come up with 204 nations? 

          Historically, the IOC recognized National Olympic Committees (NOC) from dependent nations and territories of sovereign States that represented a group of individuals with commonly shared characteristics.  Accordingly, a number of nations participate at the Olympic Games even though they do not do so on behalf of a sovereign country.  For example, at the Olympic Games today you will see athletes competing from, among others, Palestine, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), American Samoa, and Guam.  Palestine and Taiwan have not been granted statehood status by the international community, while American Samoa and Guam are territories of the United States, although they have a degree of authority to govern their domestic affairs.  

          Leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Games, the IOC changed its policy, and began to only recognize NOCs from “independent states.”[3]  Those NOCs which had already been awarded recognition by the IOC however were grandfathered into the list of authorized NOCs, allowing them to maintain their recognition in spite of the new policy.[4]  This change precipitated an outcry from a number of territories and dependent countries which had not previously been awarded recognition by the IOC and who are now prohibited under the new policy from gaining recognition until they become independent States.  There are approximately 15 groups seeking recognition by the IOC but who will be unable to satisfy the statehood criteria set forth in Article 30 of the Olympic Charter.  These include but are not limited to Kurdistan, Somaliland, Gibraltar and Northern Cyprus.  Accordingly, for the purpose of the Olympic Games, there are 204 National Olympic Committees despite the existence of only 195 internationally recognized sovereign States.

          The recognition of statehood is an extremely divisive political process, and as the situation in South Sudan illustrates, one that is often violent.  Attempts to squash separatist and national liberation movements can be a catalyst for protracted armed conflicts, in some cases, leading to mass atrocities including genocide.  Although entire communities today continue to live in legal limbo as leaders of the world debate the ambiguities of statehood, one thing is clear; no matter where armed conflicts occur in the world, all individuals will be bound by, and held accountable under, international humanitarian law.


[1]  Independent States of the World: List of all Sovereign Nations and their Capital Cities, One World Nations Online, 2012 available at http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/states.htm (providing a comprehensive list of sovereign states).

[2] 204 National Olympic Committees, International Olympic Committee, 2012 available at http://www.olympic.org/national-olympic-committees (providing a comprehensive list of National Olympic Committees).

[3] Recognition of the TCI Olympic Committee by the International Olympic Committee, Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Written Evidence, Parliament of the United Kingdom, Sept. 4, 2007 available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmfaff/147/147we08.htm.

[4] Id.

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