MOSCOW — The small Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was still getting used to its unaccustomed role at the center of world affairs, overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, when it won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
“The news of the Nobel Peace Prize was really overwhelming,” said Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of The Hague-based agency. “I see it as a great acknowledgement of a success story.”
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 / 2-year conflict.
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.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the OPCW had strengthened the rule of law in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation. “Thanks in large measure to its efforts,” he said in a statement, “eighty per cent of the declared chemical weapons stockpiles have been destroyed.”
The OPCW, with a staff of about 450, including 125 inspectors, and a budget of $95 million, has labored since 1997 as the enforcement arm of the Chemical Weapons Convention, an agreement signed by 189 countries that prohibits them from producing and using chemical weapons. Syria becomes the 190th member country on Monday.
The agency has long worked quietly from its Hague headquarters, concentrating on the technical aspect of weapons destruction with little exposure to politically fraught situations like Syria. Its assignment there has given it new urgency.
“People are still getting their heads around being in the global limelight,” Michael Luhan, the OPCW’s spokesman, told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “If this is not an example of building a plane and flying it at the same time, I don’t know what is.”
The agency is so small that when the Nobel committee called early Friday to break the news, it got no answer. So the committee resorted to a tweet: “Please contact us @Nobelprize_org we are trying get through to your office.”
“The OPCW has been operating in one gear for so long that switching into overdrive will be a considerable challenge,” Amy Smithson, a chemical weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, predicted recently as the agency took up its Syrian challenge.
Such modest circumstances can also be viewed as an advantage.
“They don’t have an ax to grind,” said Faiza Patel, a former senior policy officer at the OPCW. “And it is technically very competent, and that’s going to stand them in good stead.”
Uzumcu told reporters in The Hague that the prize money would help pay for the work of eliminating chemical weapons.
“I truly hope that this award and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria will [assist] efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people,” he said.
The OPCW operation in Syria was galvanized by a Russian diplomatic initiative, which proposed persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons in exchange for the United States backing off plans to bomb the country. President Obama was considering airstrikes in retaliation for chemical weapons use.
All of that occurred well after the Feb. 1 deadline for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Jagland, however, said the OPCW had been nominated in previous years, implying it had remained in contention. The five members of the committee are appointed by the Norwegian parliament.
“It is a huge challenge to do the right thing,” he said, “but it was not difficult to come to this decision.”
After the announcement, a reporter in Oslo asked Jagland if the 2009 Peace Prize award to President Obama was justified.
“Obama got the prize because he paved the way for new negotiations with Russia on Strategic Nuclear Weapons,” he said, adding that President George W. Bush had permitted their collapse. “And then Obama came, rescued the whole international regime, and got a START agreement.
“That is more than enough to get the Peace Prize.”
Michael Birnbaum contributed to this report.