The global chemical weapons watchdog working to eliminate chemical weapons stockpiles around the battlefields of Syria’s civil war won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a relatively small organization with a modest budget, dispatched experts to Syria after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus in August.
Their deployment, supported by the UN, helped avert a US strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Nobel Peace Prize committee head Thorbjoern Jagland said the award was a reminder to nations such as the US and Russia to eliminate their own large stockpiles, “especially because they are demanding that others do the same.”
“We now have the opportunity to get rid of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction... That would be a great event in history if we could achieve that,” he said.
The OPCW’s mission was unprecedented in taking place during a civil war that has riven the country and killed more than 100,000 people. Members of the Hague-based OPCW team themselves came under sniper fire on Aug. 26.
While the inspection and destruction of chemical weapons continues, with a team of 27 in the field, al-Assad forces and rebels clash across the country using conventional weapons.
Syrian government forces were yesterday trying to regain control of the area around the town of Safira, about 20km southeast of Aleppo. The town, controlled by rebels including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is right next to a major suspected chemical weapons site.
Yesterday’s award marked a return to the disarmament roots of the prize after some recent awards, including the EU last year and US President Barack Obama in 2009. Those awards led to criticism that the committee was out of line with the spirit of the prize, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
His 1895 will says the prize should go to one of three causes — “fraternity between nations,” the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.
The process of destroying chemical weapons can be hazardous and is costly. The chemicals can be burned, but with care not to disperse poisonous toxins, or chemically neutralized.
“Chemical weapons are horrible things and they must never be used and that contributes not just to disarmament, but to strengthening the humanity within us,” said Malik Ellahi, political adviser to the OPCW director-general.
The OPCW was set up in 1997 to implement a 1992 global Chemical Weapons Convention to banish chemical arms and most recently helped destroy stockpiles in Iraq and Libya. It has about 500 staff and an annual budget under US$100 million.