Until minutes before the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee revealed its choice in Oslo, speculation had centered on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago for defending education for girls. But just as it did last year when it selected the European Union,the committee took the world by surprise.
“We are now in a situation in which we can do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction,” Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, said. “Of course this is a very important message.”
On Aug. 21, a sarin gas attack in Syria killed more than 1,000 civilians, a reminder to the world of the horror chemical weapons visit on their victims. An estimated 100,000 people have died in the 21
OPCW inspectors were in Syria as part of a U.N. team at the time of the August chemical attack and subsequently investigated it, despite coming under sniper fire at one point. The team later produced a widely acclaimed report that documented the use of sarin in the attack and that indirectly implicated the Syrian government.
OPCW inspectors returned to Syria at the beginning of October. About two dozen inspectors are there, attempting to find and oversee the destruction of an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons — in the middle of a civil war, accompanied by unarmed U.N. guards, with security entrusted to a Syrian government that doesn’t control the entire country.
Jagland said the committee hoped the prize would have implications beyond the Syrian conflict, including encouraging signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention such as the United States and Russia to step up destruction of their stockpiles.
“The crisis in Syria highlights the need to do away with these weapons,” he said. “This is about disarmament, which goes straight to the heart of Alfred Nobel’s will.”
Nobel, the Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, left the Nobel prizes as his legacy. The ceremony for this year’s Peace Prize, worth $1.2 million, will be held on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.
Although the OPCW was an unexpected recipient, the decision was widely applauded – outside of Syria. Inside the country, the two parties to the conflict took differing views, with government supporters seeing it as an affirmation of President Bashar al-Assad’s commitment to destroying chemical weapons and rebels calling it untimely.
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, however, commended the agency’s work since the attack in Syria.
“The OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms,” he said Friday.