In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an often-obscure disarmament agency in the Netherlands, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was promoting its aspirations for international harmony as much as it was rewarding achievement.
Sure, the organization, which is responsible for implementing the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, has a long track record of accomplishments. Since its establishment, the agency, which is based in The Hague, has conducted thousands of inspections and has verified the destruction of more than 80 percent of the world’s declared chemical weapons.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee said that the award was being granted in part to reward yesterday’s cleanup, but that the main purpose was to encourage the inspectors to address today’s crisis in Syria. And that is a mission that is very much incomplete. Yes, the OPCW’s technical specialists, along with experts from the World Health Organization, braved sniper fire as they helped the United Nations determine that chemical weapons had been used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. And yes, a team of OPCW inspectors, backed by the United Nations, entered Syria last week to begin the ambitious work of overseeing the elimination of one of the world’s deadliest chemical weapons programs. But it’s an open question whether that goal can be reached in a timely fashion; this week, the U.N. and United States were scrambling to find a taker for Syria’s deadly agents, without much luck.
"By means of the present award to the OPCW, the Committee is seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons," according to a statement issued by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. "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 only played a supporting role in securing Syria’s agreement to disarm, however. The men who brokered the deal — Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and of course Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — were not even mentioned in the Nobel Peace Prize statement. In fact, the Nobel committee chided the United States and Russia for failing to meet a 2012 deadline for completing the destruction of their own chemical weapons programs.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a senior Russian diplomat — whose government has armed and defended a regime responsible for killing the vast majority of the more than 100,000 people slain in Syria’s civil war — would have been almost unthinkable. Giving it to Kerry might have been seen as reinforcing the contention of Barack Obama’s administration that the threat of unilateral U.S. military action forced Assad to pledge to give up his chemical weapons. It was the State Department, after all, that in August had cast doubts about the relevance of international chemical weapons inspections when the United States weighed whether to strike Assad’s forces.
Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, worries that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the inspection agency risks raising expectations impossibly high, setting it up for a potential steep fall.
"We should congratulate the team because they are the ones who are going to put their necks on the line, but we don’t know whether this deal will bear fruit," he said. "In terms of bringing peace, which is what the Nobel Prize is all about, this is not going to solve the war. Even if Syria gets rid of chemical weapons by the middle of next year, we’re not going to have peace."
The selection of the OPCW reminded Tabler of the decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year as U.S. president, before he had a proven record of achievements. For a selection committee that favors multilateralism, the selection of an American president who vowed in his campaign to make a break from President George W. Bush’s go-it-alone attitude toward the world seemed only natural.
"I realize this is aspirational, and I think the idea of getting chemical weapons out of Syria is a good thing," Tabler said. "But it strikes me as odd. I don’t know any other industry where you are rewarded before you actually do anything."
Najib Ghadbian, the U.S. and U.N. representative for the Syrian opposition group the Syrian National Council, welcomed "the timely recognition" of the chemical inspectors as they face major challenges in the coming months. But he also voiced frustration that the world’s focus has been so narrowly focused on Syria’s chemical weapons program, while the regime carries out most of the killing using conventional weapons, including airstrikes, Scud missiles, artillery, and other heavy weapons.
"For us, the key limitation on the disarming of the regime’s chemical weapons is that there is nothing that limits the regime from using these conventional weapons, which have killed 98 percent of the Syrian people," he said. "The international community should be doing more to stop the killing by the Assad regime, including by chemical weapons."
In citing the OPCW, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that it has long had a soft spot for disarmament, noting that it "figures prominently" in Alfred Nobel’s will. The award has previously been awarded to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.
Nonproliferation and disarmament groups praised the decision to award the OPCW, saying it would revive international support for efforts to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Former Nobel laureate and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who founded Green Cross International, which helps governments dispose of chemical weapons, said OPCW’s recognition "can provide the impetus to accelerate efforts to rid the world of these deadly weapons. A chemical weapons-free world is within grasp."
In praising the Nobel committee’s choice, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it drove home the fact that a scourge of the past was rearing its ugly head.
"This recognition occurs nearly 100 years after the first chemical attack — and 50 days after the appalling use of chemical weapons in Syria. Far from being a relic of the past, chemical weapons remain a clear and present danger," he said in a statement. "Together, we must ensure that the fog of war will never again be composed of poison gas."
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