Why OPCW won this year's Nobel Peace Prize

Posted by Matthew Schofield on October 14, 2013 

United States Syria

This image from video that was released by a U.S. government official and shown to senators during a classified briefing shows a man foaming at the mouth, lying on the floor of a large room with many other people apparently struggling with symptoms of nerve agent exposure in Eastern Gutah in Damascus, Syria.


— When this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize was revealed to be the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, there was a bit of initial criticism of the choice.

But the OPCW, which has only captured headlines in the past couple months for its role in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, has its defenders. 

The Guardian newspaper in England noted that most of the criticism appeared to be along the lines of  “Malala should have won” referring to Malala Yousafzai the 16-year-old Pakistani school girl who was shot for criticizing the Taliban while advocating for the education and equality of Pakistani woman. Her story, it is noted, is extraordinary, and inspiring.

Meanwhile, the critics, media personalities for the most part, add that the OPCW award is more an attempt to prod the organization towards success, rather than a reward for peace related activities. This argument goes that the work of the OPCW really begins with their role in the Syrian crisis, which is admittedly very difficult and dangerous work. Syria only today officially becomes a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention that the OPCW oversees, after all. 

But this narrow view is incorrect, according to the group’s defenders. Still, those expressing even mild surprise can be forgiven for being less than familiar the organization’s previous work: which include overseeing the fact that, as their website notes, “58,172, or 81.71 percent of the world's declared stockpile of 71,196 metric tons of chemical agent have been verifiably destroyed.”

Still, even OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu described his group as “a small organization, which for over 16 years, and away from the glare of international publicity, has shouldered an onerous but noble task – to act as the guardian of the global ban on chemical weapons that took effect in 1997.”

Jean Pascal Zanders, a chemical weapons policy expert, wrote Monday on his chemical weapons blog The Trench, that this low profile may have drawn criticism, but has been essential to the groups success, even if that success has gone on without notice.

“The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that oversees implementation of the CWC shuns the megaphone diplomacy typical of non-proliferation debates. In contrast to the highly mediatized accusations of violations of ill-defined non-proliferation norms usually against regimes one does not particularly like, the OPCW plods ahead with weapon elimination under any and all circumstances. Perhaps slowly, but inexorably forward. Not everything is peace and quiet, of course, but the organization values cooperation and consensus inherent in disarmament most. If one compares the non-proliferation discourse to the many fiery, but short bursts typical of volcanoes with highly liquefied lava, then the work of OPCW represents the more mafic lava. The outsider usually sees the darkened crusts of solidified minerals, and only becomes aware of the steady movement forward when the red glow of new ideas or confrontation cracks the surface. As Syria has experienced in recent weeks, there is no turning of that flow.”

Richard Guthrie, formerly the Project Leader of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and now the coordinating editor CBW Events, was particularly passionate in his defense of a 16 year old organization that he believes has been accomplishing important work for 16 years.

“Certainly, the OPCW has come to the world's attention because of the situation in Syria, but there is far more to the Organization than what has happened recently.” He said. “It is justly deserved award.  The OPCW has operated in obscurity for many years, carrying out vital work to move towards a chemical-weapon-free world.

The awarding of the prize is more than a recognition of the OPCW simply doing what it was set up to do.  The OPCW has faced numerous challenges during its existence and has overcome them.  Only two decades after the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention, we are getting ever closer to ridding the world entirely of these heinous weapons that have been declared immoral by the bulk of humanity.  The OPCW has worked tirelessly to this end.

Looking at the wider picture, there have been many people – within governments, within inter-governmental bodies, within civil society and elsewhere – that have worked extremely hard over many decades in efforts to rid the world of chemical weapons.  The CWC has become the focal point for that effort and so the award of the Nobel Prize to the OPCW is a fitting tribute to the global efforts to eliminate a whole class of the most abhorrent weapons ever devised.”


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