The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons as it works in Syria to eradicate their use after a deadly gas attack in the war-torn nation sparked international condemnation.
The intergovernmental watchdog, which has 189 member states, was formed in 1997 to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans their development, production, stockpiling and use.
“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” the Nobel Committee said in Oslo, awarding the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) prize. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”
The OPCW, based in The Hague, is working in Syria to ensure the destruction of chemical weapons and make all production facilities and equipment unusable by Nov. 1. The group moved in after the UN Security Council resolved last month to rid the country of such weapons after a gas attack near Damascus that the U.S. said killed more than 1,400 people, including children.
Sarin, the gas used in that attack, works by lowering the human body’s ability to regulate nerve impulses, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Victims suffer convulsions, lose control of their body and become comatose if exposed to a large enough amount.
“The events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that much work remains to be done,” Ahmet Uzumcu, OPCW director general and a Turkish diplomat, said today at a press briefing in The Hague. “The Syria mission in particular is a challenge to our organization. Nevertheless, we believe that we have all the expertise which has been developed in our organization.”
The Nobel Prize, along with literature, physics, medicine and chemistry honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. Past peace laureates include the European Union, which won last year, as well as U.S. President Barack Obama, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
“Previously the situation was the OPCW sort of languished in obscurity, yet it has a really important job to do,” said Richard Guthrie, editor of CBW Events, an online database of chemical and biological warfare. “This is good recognition of the fine work it’s been doing.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry this month commended Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for taking the first steps toward the destruction of his chemical weapons. Following the Aug. 21 poison-gas attack near Damascus, Russia and the U.S. were able to find common ground over the conflict, brokering a deal that required Syria to account for and destroy its chemical weapons.
The UN Security Council approved on Sept. 27 that all of Syria’s chemical weapons be eliminated, though the resolution didn’t attach consequences for failure to comply or assign blame for the attack.
Kerry praised the award, saying in a statement that “OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms that shocked the conscience of people around the world.”
Fayez Sayegh, a member of Syria’s Parliament, said by phone from Damascus that the prize to the OPCW “confirms” that Syria is abiding by the agreement with the group, adding that he hopes that the award would spur the OPCW to turn the Middle East into a weapons of mass destruction-free area.
Louay Almokdad, a logistical coordinator for the Syrian rebel army, today said that while they “respect” the OPCW, not all the danger in Syria stems from chemical weapons.
“The overwhelming majority of Syrians weren’t killed by chemical weapons,” he said. “Unfortunately, the whole crisis in Syria has been reduced to the issue of chemical weapons.”
Non-members of the OPCW include Israel and Myanmar, which have yet to ratify the convention, and Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, which have “neither signed nor acceded” to the convention. Syria will join on Oct. 14.
“This is part of the hidden political message behind the decision,” said Jean-Pascal Zanders, disarmament consultant and former senior research fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. “With Syria due to become a state party in three days, formally, the pressure on Israel and Egypt is going to be enormous.”
The convention demands that member states commit to enforcing prohibition within their jurisdiction, declare and destroy any stockpiles of chemical weapons they may hold and any facilities that produced them. The OPCW said in June that almost 80 percent of all declared chemical weapons have been destroyed under international verification by the group.
The history of preventing the use of chemicals in warfare goes back to 1675, when France and Germany signed an agreement to end the use of poison bullets, according to the OPCW.
The use of chlorine gas by German forces at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915 led to the development of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the first international accord to ban the use of the weapons. Still, the pact didn’t stop countries from developing, producing or possessing such weapons, or from using them in retaliation.
The weapons became less strategically important for the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1970s as the two nations developed their nuclear arsenals, according to Ralf Trapp, a disarmament Consultant and former scientific adviser at the OPCW.
That led to the inauguration of the convention in 1993, under which most countries committed to destroying their stockpiles. It came into force four years later.
“If you go back 40 years, you’ve got many countries around the world, the U.S., the Soviet Union and others, who have actively got chemical weapons production, actively got them as being part of their military doctrine, and yet now these weapons have a huge taboo about them,” said Guthrie.
Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Committee, today said in an interview that the prize was a message to all the countries that haven’t ratified the convention and to those that haven’t honored their obligations, such as the U.S. and Russia.
The OPCW head said today at the press briefing that it has to be recognized that elimination of chemical weapons is “labor intensive, costly and dangerous.”
There’s “no question” on the commitment of those states “to eliminate stock piles in the coming years,” he said. “There are some planned completion dates, which are all already identified by the policy making organs of the organization and I am confident that they will be met. And those weapons one has to know that they are all secured, there’s no question about their future use.”
Earlier this week, Martin Karplus, Michael Levitt and Arieh Warshel were awarded the Nobel in chemistry. Francois Englert and Peter W. Higgs shared the physics honor, while James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman and Thomas C. Sudhof were awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Yesterday, the literature prize was awarded to Alice Munro. The Economics prize is due to be announced in Stockholm on Oct. 14.
The OPCW is the 25th organization to win the peace prize.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who took on the Taliban, and Congolese gynecologist Denis Mukwege had been among the top contenders for this year’s peace prize.
The award is handed out at a ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Nobel.
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