As it has in the past, the Swedish committee that determines each year’s Nobel Peace Prize made a surprise choice this year, honouring a little-known agency that is a central part of the international agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks.
The award to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons highlights the Nobel committee’s annual balancing act between rewarding achievement, recognizing aspiration and encouraging a cause that promotes world peace.
Awards in recent years have been given to recognize long years of European peace and boost support for continued European unity (in the prize to the European Union in 2012), to recognize the courage of human rights activism in China (in the prize to the imprisoned activist Liu Xiaobo in 2010), and to encourage an American president who promised to support multilateral solutions to world problems (Barack Obama in 2009).
Nobel Peace Prize committee head Thorbjoern Jagland said that, in giving the prize to the OPCW, he hoped it would serve as a reminder to countries like the U.S. and Russia to eliminate their own weapon stockpiles. “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 prize came 10 days after OPCW inspectors started arriving in war-torn Syria to oversee the dismantling of President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal under the terms of an accord hammered out by Russia and the United States last month. The United Nations-backed organization, created in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention, had earlier dispatched experts to Syria after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,400 people near Damascus in August, prompting U.S. threats to take military action against the Syrian regime.
On Friday, the same day the Peace Prize was announced, the UN Security Council formally authorized a joint mission with the OPCW to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons – a necessary final step for the dangerous and unprecedented effort. It is the first time the OPCW will operate in a war zone.
“We were aware that our work silently but surely was contributing to peace in the world,” OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said. “The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. The entire international community has been made aware of our work.”
The OPCW, based in The Hague, has previously inspected and verified destruction of chemical weapons stocks in Libya, Iraq and other countries. It has 189 member countries including Libya, India, Iraq, Russia and the U.S. Members are required to destroy all chemical weapons, and to allow inspectors to come in for regular inspections. In its announcement making the award, the Nobel committee criticized Russia and the U.S. for failing to meet an April 2012 deadline to destroy their arsenals.
The reaction in Syria to the Nobel decision was notably polarized.
A senior Syrian rebel called the award a “premature step” that will divert the world’s attention from “the real cause of the war,” while a ruling party lawmaker declared it to be a vindication of Mr. al-Assad’s government.
“If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it’s a wrong perception,” Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition bloc, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Qatar.
Online betting houses had predicted the 2013 Peace Prize would go to either Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager whose activism on behalf of girls’ education made her a target of a Taliban assassination attempt, or Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who has treated more than 30,000 rape victims at his personal clinic in the city of Bukavu.
In a statement Friday, Malala congratulated the OPCW, and thanked her supporters. “I will continue to fight for the education for every child and I hope people will continue to support me in my cause,” she said.
With a report from Reuters