by Nic Watkins
The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winner was announced this morning, with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) receiving the prize. It seems the recent trend; particularly since surprise wins for Obama’s in 2009 and the EU in 2012, is to disparage the decisions made by the panel, but does this year’s winner deserve the same approach?
The Nobel Committee said it was in honour of the OPCW’s “extensive work to eliminate chemical weapons”. The Hague-based organisation was established to enforce the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and employs around 500 people with a budget of 75m euros ($102m, £63m). It is an autonomous organisation with a working relationship with the United Nations. The watchdog picks up 8m Swedish kronor ($1.25m; £780,000) as the winner of the most coveted of the Nobel honours.
Doubting Thomas’s will of course argue that OPCW work has not brought any definition of peace but many forget that disarmament features strongly in the will of Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite who left his fortune to establish the prize. The will stated the peace prize was to be awarded to the “person or society who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, (and) the abolition or reduction of standing armies”. The work of OPCW certainly fits this theme. The chemical weapons convention has contributed to the destruction of around 80 per cent of the worlds chemical weapons stockpiles and has 130 signatories to the convention (Syria is about to become the 131), covering around 97 per cent of the world’s population. It is arguably the world’s most successful disarmament treaty and OPCW have overseen a change in international custom making the use of chemical weapons taboo.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria has certainly helped to raise the profile of the OPCW over recent weeks. Some analysts of this Nobel panel’s announcement will attribute this award solely to the OPCW work in Syria, rightly reminding us of the insecurity that plagues the country and the thousands of Syrians killed and injured by more conventional weapons. Of course they are correct to remind us of this, but let’s not allow the atrocities happening in Syria undermine the fantastic work towards disarmament OPCW has been carrying out since its inception, helping to create a safer world.
Chemical weapons have always been viewed as particularly deplorable weapons system, due in small part to their historical deployments, one cannot easily forget the lines of blinded soldiers from the trenches of the First World War or the camps of the Holocaust, buy also of course due to their indiscriminate nature and inability to avoid non combatants. The recent footage of victims of chemical weapons in Syria has only reminded us of their horror. The chemical weapons convention and the work of the OPCW were the first steps to make their creation and storage intolerable.
The awarding of the prize should be congratulated as it seeks to enhance the OPCW’s work in Syria which in turn could be the catalyst for a ceasefire. Abhorrence over the use of chemical weapons enabled the international community to unite, in however a limited a capacity, but with enough shared belief to pass a UN Security Council Resolution that may turn out to be the first and most important step on the road to a ceasefire. The abhorrence of chemical weapons use that enabled that agreement is in no small part thanks to the work for the OPCW. Only recently the head of the OPCW, Ahmet Uzumcu, called for a ceasefire in Syria to enable it to destroy the country’s stockpiles. If it is only in this area that the international community can gain traction then the work of the OPCW becomes even more important as it creates a flag around which people can rally and opens the door to a peace process. The Nobel Prize for the OPCW supports this, and that makes them a worth recipient.
The importance of the prize that it not only raises the profile of any efforts to move towards peace in Syria but also the profile of those individuals and organisations working towards the values of the Noble prize. The recent awards to institutions and to world leaders has eroded the impact of the prize. This year’s prize supports both a long term commitment to disarmament and supports efforts to end one of the world most pressing crisis. This year’s decision by the Nobel Panel has certainly got back on the right track.