Nobel Peace Prize rewards chemical watchdog's perseverance

11th October 2013, Comments 0 comments

The winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize is a body that has spent years trying to rid the world of chemical weapons in relative obscurity and was recently thrust into the limelight by the Syrian crisis.

From Russia to the United States, Iraq and Libya, inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been slowly but surely destroying the world's most dangerous chemical stockpiles.

Syria last month signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which the OPCW enforces, agreeing to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction under a Russia-US plan aimed at averting military strikes on the country in the wake of a devastating chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.

Previously one of only five countries not to have signed the global treaty, Syria accepted the Russian proposal last month and has so far won rare praise for its cooperation with OPCW inspectors, who are already hard at work on the ground.

"The OPCW has done a lot of work over the years but most people have only heard of them because of what has happened in Syria over the last two months," said Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army Chemical Corps who now runs a London-based consultancy in chemical defence issues.

"They have been labouring away in obscurity and have done a lot of hard work -- most of it really hard, technical stuff," he told AFP.

"They are woefully underfunded so perhaps winning the Nobel will help them to get more funding," he said.

Ahead of the surprise announcement, the organisation said it preferred to focus on the task in Syria rather than any jubilation.

"We don't want to give any impression that we're focussed on anything else than other than this mission," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said.

The organisation said Director General Ahmet Uzumcu would hold a press conference at 1130 GMT near the body's Hague headquarters.

The organisation began work in 1997 and has overseen the destruction of some 57,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons, mostly US and Russian arsenals.

"It's the slow steady laying down of bricks over the weeks, months and years, people sitting in control rooms watching this stuff going into the chutes," Luhan said.

"It's our persistence, without any fanfare... it's the slow grinding work that we hope over time will be more appreciated."

But Luhan said he did not want the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to overshadow its dangerous mission in Syria.

"We don't want to be seen as a one-note song," he said.

The OPCW's head, Turkish diplomat Ahmet Uzumcu, has been in the job since 2010, and will serve until next year.

The diminutive former Turkish ambassador to NATO, the United Nations and Israel is a disarmament expert and fluent French and English speaker.

"He's an expert in crisis management. He knows the Russian (chemical weapons) dossier particularly well, thanks to representing Turkey at NATO," a Turkish diplomat told AFP, asking not to be named.

Chemical weapons were first used in combat in World War I, and again in 1988 against civilians in Halabja, Iraq, with Chemical Weapons Convention finally drawn up in 1993 in Paris.

The CWC entered into force on April 29, 1997, and the OPCW began its work on the edge of a quiet upmarket leafy suburb in The Hague shortly afterwards.

The Convention was the result of almost 20 years of negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, and initially aimed to eliminate all the world's chemical weapons by 2007.

It was preceded by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use of chemical weapons following widespread use in World War I, but not their development under a "no first use" notion.

The OPCW currently has 189 so-called States Parties, including nearly all industrialised nations and more than 98 percent of the world population.

Israel and Myanmar have signed the Convention but not ratified it, while Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan have done neither.

Syria last month applied to join the Convention and the convention officially comes into effect in the war-ravaged nation on Monday.

Some 81 percent of world stocks of declared chemical agents have been destroyed under supervision, according to the organisation's website.

© 2013 AFP

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