The announcement that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was to be awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) took many by surprise. The consensus choice seemed to be the young female education activist, Malala Yousafzai. The selection of OPCW, however, fits the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s history of awarding the Prize to global institutions that pursue the broad goal of the total elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
The complexities and contradictions of global politics can often lead to cynicism. No one can be trusted, violence is endemic, and international organizations are too incompetent to do anything about it. Just a month ago the United States was on the brink of war, once again using the threat of its military might to try to force its desired outcome.
Then, following an off the cuff comment by Secretary of State John Kerry and a few days of scrambling, Syria, with the backing of Russia, agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and eliminate its entire chemical weapons stockpile. Since then, Syria appears to be complying with its promises and weapons are already being destroyed.
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The U.S. threat of force, to the chagrin of the Free Syrian Army and others who saw external intervention as a way to finally overthrow Assad’s regime, had a single stated purpose—to weaken Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. Now, Syria is in the process of eliminating them all. This is a better outcome than even the rosiest predictions coming from those advocating a military strike.
However, this deal would not have been possible if the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) had not been negotiated, signed and ratified back in the 1990s.
The CWC requires each member to report on and to fully eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile, overseen and monitored by the OPCW in joint partnership with the United Nations. Since it came into force, the CWC has become one of the most successful international agreements in history.
Outside of Syria, only five other countries—Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan—have neither signed nor ratified the treaty. Also, it has been signed, but not ratified, by Israel and Myanmar. There is no question what is required once a member joins. For Syria, non-compliance could quite literally be Assad’s last card and give both Russia and Iran an excuse to drop their support for his regime—something Iran has already signaled it is willing to do.
Most importantly, without the CWC and the oversight of the OPCW, any agreement on Assad’s chemical weapons capability would have had to be negotiated on an ad hoc basis. While the full securing and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons is going to be extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the confines of the ongoing civil war, it would have been nearly impossible without this global agreement already in place. It is this essential role of the organization that is being recognized by the Nobel Committee.
Syria acquiescing to rid itself of its chemical weapons, under OPCW monitoring, also reinforces another important precedent. Russia’s stance in the Syria crisis was that an external intervention without UN authorization would be a violation of Syrian sovereignty under the rules of the UN Charter. However, by turning to the CWC, Russia has been forced to recognize that sovereignty indeed has its limits and that there are certain issues, such as the stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, which require compliance.
Of course, none of this brings justice to those who have been tortured, displaced and killed by Assad’s brutal regime, nor has Syria’s agreement to destroy its chemical weapons stopped the bloodshed that is happening there.
What it does demonstrate, however, is how the creation of strong global institutions can provide a framework for shaping future policy that does not need to rely on the uncertainties that accompany military force. It is for that reason that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been given this honor.