In an unexpected turn, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, responsible for selecting the annual Nobel Peace Prize winner, granted its signature award to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Friday, for its 16-year campaign to end the use of toxic agents in warfare. The Hague-based group was created to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that bans the use, manufacture and transport of chemical weapons. In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee said: “The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law…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 had already been on the ground in Syria for several weeks. Last month, under the threat of military attack, President Bashar Assad announced that he would become a signatory to the convention and agreed to dismantle his chemical arsenal – a sharp turnaround considering that he had until then denied that Syria even had one. Syria’s accession to the convention, as the 190th member, will be formalized next week.
In combination with the U.N. and in consultation with the Assad government, the OPCW has set an ambitious goal for the complete destruction of the Syrian program—promising to destroy all of Syria’s chemical weapons manufacturing facilities by November 1, and its entire toxic arsenal by mid-summer. It is an unprecedented timeline made all the more difficult by Syria’s ongoing civil war, and where many of the facilities and storage sites are surrounded by rebel forces. Many are skeptical that it can even be done, but in granting the award, the Nobel committee has given an even stronger impetus to see it through. It has also given the OPCW a global platform to push the remaining states that have not signed the convention, North Korea, Angola, Egypt and South Sudan among them, to do so.
For years the OPCW has worked quietly behind the scenes to help signatories eliminate their chemical weapons stockpiles. But they gained international attention this spring, in the wake of an alleged chemical weapon attack in the Syrian town of Khan al-Asal that killed 31 people. Both rebels and the regime traded accusations, and both demanded international inspectors to verify their claims. Yet it took five months for the OPCW and the UN to negotiate the terms of the investigation with the government, which seemed to be dragging its feet. Just days after investigators arrived in Damascus, chemical weapons were again deployed on August 21, this time in the capital city’s southern and eastern suburbs, killing hundreds. Within days, investigators were able to assess several of the afflicted sites. Though the investigator’s mandate prevents them from assigning blame, the resulting report’s conclusions, based on assessments of the deployment of complex chemicals, sophisticated dispersal methods and rocket trajectories, pointed at the regime.
Due to security threats, investigators still have not been able to access Khan al-Asal, as well as several other sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used. But as the OPCW expands its program in Syria, more evidence of past chemical weapons use is sure to arise. Even as it does, the OPCW will be there, making sure it never happens again. And that is surely what the Nobel Committee had in mind.