The winner isn’t... Malala Yousafzai misses out as chemical weapons watchdog OPCW wins Nobel Peace Prize

Little-known watchdog gets Nobel recognition for work trying to rid world of chemical weapons – but critics point to recent genocide in Syria and claim award is ‘premature’ 

Cahal Milmo
Friday 11 October 2013 19:21 BST
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' (OPCW) building in The Hague, The Netherlands
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' (OPCW) building in The Hague, The Netherlands

The global watchdog dedicated to the destruction of chemical weapons was unveiled as the unexpected winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for its work to rid humanity of a blight that has haunted killing fields from Flanders to Syria.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a relative newcomer to the stable of bodies with a remit to enforce the will of the international community, had worked largely behind the scenes until nerve agent attacks in Syria put it centre stage this summer.

But the Nobel Committee emphasised that the organisation - the 25th institution among 94 winners of the prize - was being recognised for its work over the 16 years of its existence to enforce the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention in locations from Albania to the United States.

The award was made despite widespread speculation that it would go to one of two bookmakers’ favourites - the Pakistani schoolgirl turned female education campaigner Malala Yousafzai and Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, who has helped thousands of rape victims.

The committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland, hinted that a Nobel moment may still come for the 16-year-old shot by the Taliban and now living in Britain. He said: “She is an outstanding woman and I think she has a bright future and she will probably be a nominee next year or the year after that.”

Following criticism of recent awards to the European Union and US president Barack Obama, the choice of the OPCW, which is based in The Hague with a staff of 500 and a modest annual budget of about £60million, is seen as a return to the original disarmament spirit of the prize.

The organisation, whose teams returned to Syria this month to begin work on dismantling the 1,000 tonne chemical weapon stockpile of Bashar al Assad’s regime, has so far eradicated nearly 82 per cent of the world’s declared arsenal of 71,000 tonnes of manmade lethal agents.

Announcing the prize in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, Mr Jagland said: “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 added that the award was a reminder to the United States and Russia to eliminate their own sizable stockpiles “especially because they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria”.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the OPCW’s Turkish head, said: “We were aware that our work silently but surely was contributing to peace in the world. The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. The entire international community has been made aware of our work.”

Opponents of the Syrian dictator, blamed by the US for August’s sarin attack in Damascus which killed more than 1,000 people, criticised the award as a “premature step” while others pointed out that it had been made in the one year since the OPCW’s foundation when chemical weapons had been used for mass murder.

Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition grouping, said: “If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections will help foster peace in Syria and the region, it’s a wrong perception.” Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch in Beirut, added: “I would have thought that 2013 would have been a year for soul searching at OPCW, not accolades.”

Though the use of chemical weapons was banned under the Geneva Convention in 1925, it took until the activation of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 for their storage and production to be formally outlawed. Some 189 countries, comprising 98 per cent of the world’s population, have ratified the treaty, with all but a handful having also destroyed their stocks. The US has eliminated about 90 per cent of its weapons and Russia 70 per cent after vast stockpiles were built up by the Cold War foes.

While the OPCW will now continue its work to destroy tonnes of mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agent in the teeth of a Syrian civil war which has claimed more than 100,000 lives, the unveiling of the 2013 peace prize did not go without a hitch.

After the identity of the winner of the prize was revealed an hour early by Norwegian television, the Nobel Committee appeared to be having trouble reaching its recipient to let them know the news. It sent a Tweet from its account saying: “@OPCW Please contact us @Nobelprize_org we are trying get through to your office.”

Fighting for peace: The ‘apolitical’ body tasked with getting rogue states to disarm

If proof were needed that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is, as one of its own staff put it, a “profoundly political body”, it came shortly before the Iraq War when its then director found himself somewhat at odds with American foreign policy.

As the preparations for war intensified in Washington and London in 2002, the Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, the founding director-general of the OPCW, had encouraged Saddam Hussein’s regime to sign up to the chemical weapons convention that it enforces.

Within weeks, Mr Bustani, whose re-election had been strongly supported by the US government a year earlier and who had been praised for his work by the then Secretary of State Colin Powell, was ousted from his post after a US-led campaign accusing him of mismanagement.

A UN tribunal later condemned the vote to remove Mr Bustani as an “unacceptable violation” of the rules protecting international officials and he was awarded £42,000 in “moral damages” as well as the balance of the salary due to him.

Although the OPCW and its staff are required to be scrupulously apolitical, it works in a highly politicised environment In the words of an insider at the body’s headquarters in The Hague, staffed by 500 people, it is a “profoundly political body in the sense that we require nothing less from states than they that demilitarise”. He added: “At the end of the day, we are an organisation dedicated to peace.”

Dedication would seem to be the word. Until the OPCW was pushed resolutely into the global spotlight following the use of sarin to kill about 1,300 people in Damascus, it has steadily gone about its work to destroy the world’s chemical weapon stockpiles largely unnoticed. Its mandate is to enforce the 1997 UN Chemical Weapons Convention, so far ratified by 189 states. The 190th – Syria – is due to sign next week.

Under the terms of the treaty all states must undertake to destroy all such weaponry under the supervision of the OPCW. Seven countries – Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia, the United States and an unidentified “state party” widely believed to be South Korea – declaring stocks of lethal agents.

Albania, India and the “state party” have completed destruction of their weaponry, while Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan have not signed the treaty.

According to its latest figures, some 81.7 per cent of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical agents – ranging from First World War-era substances such as mustard gas through to the VX nerve agent – have been destroyed, along with 57 per cent of the munitions needed to deliver them.

In an irony that did not escape the Nobel Prize committee, the holders of the largest remaining stockpiles are the two nations instrumental in demanding the destruction of those held by Syria. Both Russia and the United States have missed deadlines to complete the eradication of their chemical weapons.

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