The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons,” was unexpected but welcome. It helped remind many that chemical weapons are not, like nuclear arms, a last resort protected by a policy framework of mutually
assured destruction; they are still used from time to time, to devastating effect, and usually by closed regimes as a measure of intimidation or desperation.
Consider Syria. Not even President Bashar al-Assad’s government can deny that toxic chemicals were used on civilians a mere two months ago. (Assad and company just blame the fractious rebel organizations.)
There is a remarkable passage (one of many), in Der Spiegel’s hard-hitting interview with the Syrian president published last week where he creatively denies any responsibility for the use of chemical weapons which killed over 1,000 Syrians last August.
First there is the categorical denial: “We did not use chemical weapons. This is a misstatement.” There is the delusionary non sequitur: “All this and I am killing my people and they still support me!” There is the heated challenge: “Once again, I dare [US President Barack] Obama to give a single piece of evidence, a single shred. The only thing he has is lies.” And then there is the diplomatic deflection: “When the [United Nations] inspectors came to Syria, we asked them to continue the investigation. We are hoping for an explanation of who is responsible for this act.” There is also the gratuitous speculation: “Who said that they [the rebels untrained in chemical weaponry] are not capable? In the 1990s, terrorists used sarin gas in an attack in Tokyo.” Then finally, when confronted by an assertive interviewer with command of the facts, there is the appeal to uncertainty: “No one can say with certainty that rockets were used—we do not have any evidence. The only thing certain is that sarin was released.”
The work of the OPCW is precisely aimed at preventing the use of sarin or any other chemical weapon. (The organization uses the “general and traditional” definition of a chemical weapon as any “toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.”) But Assad’s practiced use of denial and rationalization indicates how difficult the job will be.
To be sure, Syria has agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons; the United States and the Russian Federation concluded the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons last September, and the OPCW as the multinational agency which implements the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) will play a crucial role in turning a diplomatic breakthrough into on-the-ground reality. Its executive council is responsible for determining the destruction schedule and verification procedures.
On its website, the OPCW explains its responsibilities: “As the implementing body for the CWC, the OPCW will be responsible for all activities connected with the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme including through stringent inspection and verification processes. The OPCW will dispatch an advance team to Syria as soon as the Executive Council adopts its decision.”
The explanation, however, raises an important question. Why is the OPCW receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, when it has barely started on the Syrian chemical arsenal?
The answer is only hinted at in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s one-page announcement: Apart from helping resolve other crises, the OPCW helped create and consolidate the very CWC-ordered system which the international community will use to ensure that Syria does destroy its chemical weapons. (Under this system, it is the “primary” responsibility of the “possessor state” to destroy the weapons.)
In other words, it has already done considerable work to advance the goals of the CWC. To quote the Nobel committee’s language, “The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law.” That means it has come very close indeed to Alfred Nobel’s original vision of the prize, as contributing to the “fraternity between nations, [and] the abolition or reduction of standing armies.”
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