Efforts to eliminate chemical weapons have won a Nobel Peace Prize for the global watchdog trying to destroy Syria’s stockpiles.
By giving its prestigious prize to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee turned the spotlight both on Syria’s devastating civil war and on a type of weapon that has horrified nations since the First World War.
The reaction in Syria was divided. A senior Syrian rebel called the award a “premature step” that will divert the world’s attention from “the real cause of the war” while a politician from Syria’s ruling party declared the Nobel to be a vindication of President Bashir Assad’s government.
The OPCW was formed in 1997 to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, it has largely worked out of the limelight until this year, when the UN called upon its expertise to help investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” the Nobel Committee said in Oslo. “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 award comes just days before Syria officially joins as OPCW’s 190th member state on Monday. OPCW inspectors are already on a risky UN-backed disarmament mission based in Damascus to verify and destroy the government’s arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents.
“Events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work still to be done,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told reporters in The Hague. “Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons.”
He said the $1.2m prize money would be used “for the goals of the convention” – to eliminate chemical weapons.
By giving the peace award to an international organisation, the Nobel committee highlighted the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, without siding with any of the groups involved. The fighting has killed more than 100,000 people, devastated many cities and towns and forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes and country.
UN war crimes investigators have accused both Assad’s government and the rebels of wrongdoing, although they say the scale and intensity of regime abuses are greater than the rebel abuses.
Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition bloc, called the Nobel award “a premature step”.
“If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it’s a wrong perception,” Mr Safi said from Qatar.
“But demolishing the regime’s chemical weapons alone will not bring peace to Syria, because many more people are dying because Assad’s troops are killing them with all types of conventional weapons,” he said.
Fayez Sayegh, a member of Assad’s ruling Baath party, said the award underscores “the credibility” of the Damascus government. He said Syria is “giving an example to countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons”.
The first OPCW inspection team arrived in Syria last week, followed by another this week. They have already begun to oversee the first stages of the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons.
Jihadi-led rebel fighters in Syria killed at least 190 civilians and abducted more than 200 during an offensive against pro-regime villages, Human Rights Watch says. The attacks on unarmed civilians in more than a dozen villages in the province of Latakia on August 4 could even amount to a crime against humanity, the organisation said in a 105-page report.