LONDON — Urging the destruction of an “entire category” of unconventional weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 2013 Peace Prize on Friday to a relatively modest and little-known UN-backed body that has drawn sudden attention with a mission to destroy Syria’s stocks of chemical arms under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.
The award to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, took some Nobel watchers by surprise partly because of the unprecedented nature of its current task: overseeing the destruction of a previously secret chemical weapons program quickly amid a raging civil war.
“We were aware that our work silently but surely was contributing to peace in the world,” Ahmet Uzumcu, the director general of the organization, told reporters in The Hague after the award was announced. “The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. The entire international community has been made aware of our work.”
Among diplomats, the prize was seen as the high point of a startling rise to prominence for an organization that has worked in relative obscurity. Some Syrians, however, took strong exception to the idea of lauding chemical weapons watchdogs when the bulk of the more than 100,000 fatalities in Syria’s civil war have been caused by conventional weapons, like airstrikes, artillery, and rocket fire.
Despite the urgency and danger of its task, the organization had not been tapped as a likely winner. In the days leading up to the award, much attention had focused on individual candidates, including Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani student who risked her life to campaign for girls’ education and would have been the youngest recipient of the award. In its citation, the committee said the organization and the treaty under which it was founded in 1997 “have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law.
“Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”
It was the second successive year that the panel, based in Oslo, chose an organization for its accolade. The European Union won the 2012 prize.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minister who is chairman of the Nobel Committee, said chemical weapons had been used by Hitler’s armies in their campaign of mass extermination and on many other occasions by states and terrorists. He denied suggestions that the award to a body based in The Hague represented a Eurocentric shift after last year’s award to the European Union. “It’s global,” he said.
The organization’s mission is to act as a watchdog in implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997 with four aims: to destroy all chemical weapons under international verification; to prevent the creation of new chemical weapons; to help countries protect themselves against chemical attack; and to foster international cooperation in the peaceful use of chemistry.
The body has a technical staff of around 500, according to its website, and an annual budget of around $100 million. Its members cover 98 percent of the global population landmass, as well as 98 percent of the worldwide chemical industry, it says.
Since its creation, the organization has sent experts to carry out 5,000 inspections in 86 countries, working discreetly, almost shunning publicity, with the small number of signatory countries that acknowledge possessing chemical weapons. By far the biggest of these are Russia and the United States. Four countries besides Syria have not signed or ratified the treaty: Egypt, Angola, South Sudan, and North Korea. Israel and Myanmar have signed the treaty but their state governments have not ratified it.
Although it attracted some notice when it sent experts to tackle the chemical arms held by Moammar Khadafy, the Libyan leader, nothing had prepared the organization for its mission in Syria.
The operation is unparalleled in its urgency and its hazards. The UN Security Council has set extremely tight deadlines for the mission, calling for the destruction of Syria’s arsenal of dangerous toxins by mid-2014 in the middle of an intense and violent conflict.
The Nobel nominees are shrouded in secrecy. Apart from Yousafzai, another front-runner was said to have been Denis Mukwege, a gynecologist who has treated rape victims in the long-running conflict in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. The award of $1.25 million will be presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of its founder, the Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who established the prize in 1895 in his will. It was the 94th to be awarded since his death.