Heather Williams
Former Chatham House Expert

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for its 'extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons' is an important recognition for the individuals conducting this dangerous and important work, and is ultimately aimed to strengthen the norm of non-use of WMD. 

Hope for peace dividends 

Nobel Peace Prizes can be divided into two categories. First, to individuals for their life's work, such as the Dalai Lama or Nelson Maldela; and second, to individuals or organizations embarking on a promising course of action in pursuit of peace that will yield dividends. The latter category would include last year's prize to the European Union and the 2005 prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This category is more a snapshot of the world today - what are the greatest threats to peace? What are the most promising solutions? And what deserves the attention and support of the international community? The OPCW clearly is an answer to these last two questions.

The OPCW is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC came into effect in 1997 and 190 member states will have joined the convention when Syria joins on October 14. The OPCW is responsible for monitoring and verifying chemical weapons destruction, which it has done in Iraq and Libya, and continues to work with the United States and Russia in destroying their large stockpiles. Under its leadership, over 80% of the world's chemical weapons have been destroyed. While the OPCW has handled many challenges in the past, its current mission in Syria is different. 

Tough work in Syria 

Awarding the Peace prize to the OPCW recognizes its work in Syria and shows support for future work. The UN and OPCW have formed a Joint Mission to implement plans for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons following a UN investigation that confirmed their large scale use on 21 August. Thus far, Syria has been cooperative and provided an initial declaration of its chemical weapons. The Joint Mission has begun to verify the country's declaration and oversee the destruction of chemical weapons munitions. Their work in Syria is just beginning, and every step of the three-phase destruction process is fraught with risk to OPCW personnel. For over a decade the OPCW has been carrying out its work with minimal publicity, so it is ripe that it is awarded the Peace prize now, when its work in Syria is only just beginning. 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon acknowledged that the Joint Mission's operation is unprecedented because of the 'dangerous and volatile' environment in Syria, and warned that the work must be done on an 'ambitious timeline.' There are at least three primary challenges to the plan: safety, destruction logistics, and cost. First, UN and OPCW personnel will be working in a combat zone and have to negotiate cease fire zones and hours for their activities. The operation will also present risks to public safety and potentially the Syrian people, given the nature of the materials. Second, the logistics of the weapons destruction have yet to be finalized and could spark political debate. And finally, experience has proven chemical weapons destruction to be a costly endeavor. The United States provided tens of millions of dollars to facilitate Libya's chemical weapons destruction, which was of a significantly smaller scale. The OPCW needs political, symbolic, and financial support if it is to succeed. 

The WMD taboo 

By supporting the OPCW's past work and promoting its future success, the prize will strengthen the international norm against WMD-use. This was cited in the prize announcement: 'The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law.' This norm is a cornerstone of international security and the laws of modern warfare, dating back to the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The prize is a call for the universalization of the CWC - only six states remain outside the regime: Angola, Burma, Egypt, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan.  

The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons is unlikely to resolve the ongoing conflict. But, as long as the war continues, we can support those who try to reduce its human costs and suffering. 

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