LONDON — Hardly anyone knew it existed before last month. Its work has been criticized and its employees shot at. Bigger names, including that of a teenage girl, were thought to be ahead in line for the world’s most prestigious award.
But the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group now at the forefront of the effort to divest Syria of its chemical arsenal, was declared the recipient Friday of the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was the second year in a row that the prize committee decided to honor an institution and not a person, following last year’s choice of the European Union.
“The recognition that the peace prize brings will spur us to untiring effort, even stronger commitment and greater dedication,” Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said at OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. “I truly hope that this award, and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria, will help broader efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people.”
The 16-year-old agency has toiled in relative obscurity in its mission to implement the global Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use and production of chemical arms. But it began grabbing headlines last month as the United States looked increasingly set to launch airstrikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which the Obama administration and others accuse of gassing rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people. Syrian officials deny launching the attack.
OPCW staff members were part of the U.N. team that investigated the attack, at one point coming under sniper fire. After an agreement last month between Washington and Moscow that averted the threatened U.S. airstrikes, the OPCW is now the lead organization in the daunting effort to neutralize Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Whether it can succeed amid continued fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels trying to oust Assad remains an open question.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry congratulated the OPCW on the Nobel Prize, though he once appeared dismissive of its work. At the end of August, while presenting the White House’s argument for punishing Damascus militarily, Kerry said the attack investigation conducted by the U.N. and the OPCW “can’t tell us anything … that we don’t already know.”
On Friday, he saluted the “bravery and resolve” of OPCW inspectors.
“The world will never forget the loss of the more than 1,000 innocent Syrians senselessly killed with chemical weapons on Aug. 21,” Kerry said in a statement. “Since that horrific attack, the OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms.”
In receiving the peace prize, which comes with a check for more than $1 million, the OPCW unexpectedly elbowed past high-profile figures believed to be front-runners, such as Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived a Taliban militant’s bullet, and Denis Mukwege, a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has treated thousands of victims of sexual violence.
Malala, 16, would have been the prize’s youngest-ever recipient and already has a list of accolades to her name, including the EU’s top human rights award, announced the day before the Nobel committee unveiled its recipient. Friday was also the U.N.’s International Day of the Girl Child, which made the courageous teen campaigner for girls’ education a sentimental choice for some.
As it happens, the OPCW is the same age as Malala, formed when the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. Nearly 200 countries, representing 98 percent of the world’s population, have signed on to the pact.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, cataloged some of the ghastly horrors that chemical weapons have visited on humanity, from the killing fields of World War I to the Nazis’ genocidal rampage during World War II.
He emphasized that the OPCW previously had been a candidate for the peace prize and that its selection this year wasn’t simply because of its current turn in the global spotlight for its work in Syria. The Nobel panel has honored those promoting an end to nuclear arms and wanted to show its support for ridding the world of chemical ones as well, Jagland said.
He also made a dig at the United States and Russia, which, he noted, had not met the April 2012 deadline for the complete destruction of their chemical weapons stockpiles.
Alastair Hay, a toxicologist at the University of Leeds in northern England, said the OPCW had “been working for years below the radar of media attention,” conducting 400 inspections a year of the civilian chemical industry and chemical plants.
“It’s not quite like the award to President Obama, who had yet to be tested” when he won the peace prize in 2009, Hay said. “The OPCW has been tested. … It’s not an organization that needs to prove itself. It’s already done that.”
Despite his agency’s record, Uzumcu characterized the Syria effort as unprecedented, given the tight deadlines imposed by the U.N. A resolution approved by the U.N. Security Council calls for Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities to be rendered unusable by the end of this month, with the entire stockpile to be destroyed by the middle of next year.
About 60 OPCW and U.N. staff members are in Syria. Inspectors have visited three sites, and some munitions have already been neutralized.
“Never in the history of our organization have we been called on to verify a destruction program within such short time frames and in an ongoing conflict,” said Uzumcu, a former Turkish diplomat. “We are conscious of the enormous trust that the international community has bestowed on us.”
The OPCW has already chalked up one success with regard to Syria: Assad has agreed to have the country sign on to the global chemical weapons accord. It will be the 190th nation to do so.
Hassan Mashhadi, a security consultant at The Hague, said that unlike the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the convention requires countries that possess chemical weapons to destroy them. The OPCW “treats all countries equally in that respect,” Mashhadi said in a phone interview.
Ake Sellstrom, the Swedish scientist who led the team that investigated the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus area, said the moral weight of the OPCW’s Nobel laurel could help pressure more holdout nations to join.
“It’s about influencing the states that are not yet in: North Korea, Iraq and Israel, among others,” Sellstrom told the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet.
“It feels great. It is a little-known organization that is getting a much-deserved prize,” Sellstrom said. “I might have a glass of wine later.”