National Geographic News
Photo of the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, in The Hague, Netherlands.

The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week.

Photograph by Peter Dejong, AP

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published October 11, 2013

They weren't the front runner. They'd been nominated before. But this time, they took the prize. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which for the last 16 years has sought to "verify the elimination of chemical weapons from the world and to encourage all nations to adhere to this hard-earned norm"—and which is currently dismantling Syria's arsenal.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is an intergovernmental body based in The Hague, Netherlands. It oversees international compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention among those countries that have signed the agreement (to date, all but a handful of countries have joined the convention).

(See "How Syria's Chemical Weapons Could Be Disposed Of.")

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said, "We have ... worked with quiet determination to rid the world of these heinous weapons—weapons which have been used to horrific effect throughout the 20th century and, sadly, in our own time too."

Üzümcü pointed to recent use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime in Syria as "a tragic reminder that there remains much work yet to be done."

In a statement, he noted: "Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons. Today we are engaged in work which is meant to ensure that this atrocity is not repeated."

He added that the organization had never before been called to verify weapons destruction so quickly, or during ongoing conflict.

"Brave" Efforts

Cheryl Rofer, a retired chemist, writer, and blogger who worked on chemical weapons disposal at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in the 1990s, said the OPCW's Nobel Prize is "excellent—they are eliminating an entire class of weapons."

OPCW has overseen destruction of chemical weapons in Albania, India, Libya, South Korea, the U.S., Russia, and elsewhere. "They've been doing this since 1997, and it's been kind of under the radar for major news outlets," Rofer said.

"What they are doing in Syria is unprecedented, considering there is a war going on there," she added. "It's very brave of them."

In recent weeks, OPCW representatives have been overseeing the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons manufacturing facilities by local personnel, said Rofer.  She is surprised by how smoothly the group's work in Syria has gone.

"I think Russia is putting immense pressure on Syria to cooperate," she said. "Russia doesn't want jihadis to get chemical weapons that could be used in the Caucasuses or in an attack on the Sochi Winter Olympics."

Shining Attention

Rofer hopes that the Nobel Peace Prize win will shine more international attention on chemical weapons.

The OPCW now joins a storied group of past winners, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Lech Walesa, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., the International Panel on Climate Change, and several U.S. presidents, as well as many other humanitarians.

"Maybe this will put more pressure on the [holdout] countries, like North Korea, to sign the convention and get rid of their chemical weapons," said Rofer.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

1 comments

Share

Feed the World

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

Latest From Nat Geo

See more photos »

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »