OSLO: The OPCW, an obscure body recently thrust into the spotlight by the Syria crisis, on Friday won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work to rid the world of chemical weapons.
The United Nations-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was honored “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons,” Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the surprise choice.
“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 Norwegian jury said in its statement.
The chemical watchdog was not considered among the frontrunners for the prize until the eve of the announcement.
Teenage Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege had been among the favorites for this year’s prize.
This marks the second consecutive year an organization has won the prestigious award. Last year’s award went to the European Union.
The Hague-based OPCW was founded in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention signed on January 13, 1993.
Until recently operating in relative obscurity, the OPCW has suddenly been catapulted into the global spotlight because of its work supervising the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal and facilities.
This has to be completed by mid-2014 under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution.
A team of around 30 OPCW arms experts and UN logistics and security personnel are on the ground in Syria and have started to destroy weapons production facilities.
The OPCW said on Tuesday it was sending a second wave of inspectors to bolster the disarmament mission in the war-ravaged nation.
The Rights Livelihood Foundation, a Swedish NGO that recently awarded a prize to chemical weapons expert Paul Walker, hailed the Nobel jury’s decision as “a great choice”.
“It shows that multilateral processes and the technical solutions to rid the world of chemical weapons do exist,” said Ole von Uexkull, the foundation’s director, in a statement.
Since the OPCW came into existence 16 years ago, it has destroyed 57,000 tons of chemical weapons, the majority of them leftovers from the Cold War held by the United States and Russia.
“It’s the slow steady laying down of bricks over the weeks, months and years, people sitting in control rooms watching this stuff going into the chutes,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said recently.
Luhan, speaking before the prize was awarded, described the OPCW’s work as characterized by “persistence” and “without any fanfare.”
“It’s the slow grinding work that we hope over time will be more appreciated,” he said.
The OPCW’s work was the “subject of years and years of patient diplomacy in which we’ve demonstrated that we do diplomacy very, very well. We’ve kept everybody aboard, we keep adding states parties, we’re approaching universality.”
To date, the OPCW has 189 members representing more than 98 percent of the world population, with Syria due to become a full-fledged member of the convention on Monday.
Israel and Myanmar signed in 1993 but have not yet ratified, according to the OPCW website.
Four states—North Korea, Angola, Egypt, South Sudan—have neither signed nor ratified the Convention.
The OPCW also provides assistance and protection to any member state subject to threats or attacks with chemical weapons.
Luhan, the OPCW spokesman, said any reaction to the peace prize would be posted on the organization’s website, adding it did not want to create the impression that it was focused on anything but its work.
“We’re in the process of trying to achieve something in Syria,” he said.
“If we achieve the objectives of this mission, then there’ll be something to celebrate.”
The head of the Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI meanwhile hailed the choice of laureate.
“I think it is a well deserved and highly regarded organization worthy of this prize,” SIPRI head Tilman Brueck.
“I think it will increase the pressure on the last states that have not joined the OPCW to do so, and there are some security hotspots concerning chemical weapons and it will focus attention on those,” he said.
Chemical weapons were first used in combat in World War I, and again in 1988 against civilians in Halabja, Iraq, with Chemical Weapons Convention finally drawn up in 1993 in Paris.