LONDON (MCT) — The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog group that has risen to sudden prominence over the past month in the effort to divest Syria of such munitions.
"Disarmament figures prominently in Alfred Nobel's will," said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. While the committee has, in the past, recognized those campaigning to eliminate nuclear weapons, Friday's announcement shows its support for ridding the world of chemical ones as well, Jagland declared at a news conference in Oslo.
The OPCW, based in The Hague, was chosen from a record pool of 259 nominees for the world's most prestigious prize.
Among the other high-profile candidates were Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, and Denis Mukwege, a doctor in the Democratic Republic of Congo who has treated thousands of victims of sexual violence. Malala, 16, would have been the prize's youngest-ever recipient.
Coincidentally, the OPCW is the same age, formed when the international Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. The pact calls for the destruction of all chemical weapons, and the OPCW is tasked with carrying that out. Nearly 200 countries, representing 98 percent of the world's population, have signed on to the accord.
The choice of the OPCW to receive its highest honor continues the Nobel Committee's tradition of recognizing institutions as well as individuals. Last year's winner was the European Union, credited with helping to stitch Europe back together after the continent was torn apart by two world wars; other groups to have been awarded the prize include the medical charity Doctors Without Borders.
Jagland catalogued some of the horrors that chemical weapons have produced in the past, from the killing fields of World War I to Hitler's genocidal campaign during World War II.
"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," he said, though he added that the OPCW had been under consideration as a candidate for the peace prize for several months already and had been nominated in the past.
Jagland also pointedly noted that the United States and Russia had not met the April 2012 deadline for the destruction of their chemical weapon stockpiles.
The OPCW toiled in relative obscurity until the recent faceoff between the Syrian government and countries led by the U.S., which accused Syrian security forces of deploying deadly nerve agents in a rebel-held district of Damascus and killing hundreds of people. A threatened U.S. military strike was averted when Syrian President Bashar Assad unexpectedly agreed to give up his chemical arsenal under a Russian-led diplomatic initiative.
OPCW inspectors have been on the ground in Syria since Oct. 1 to verify Assad's stockpile and oversee its safe storage and destruction, a challenging process made even more difficult by the civil war raging in the country.
Some chemical munitions have already been neutralized, the OPCW says. Production facilities are to be rendered unusable by the end of the month and the entire stockpile is to be destroyed by the middle of next year, according to a recently approved United Nations resolution.
"Our experts both on the ground and here at the headquarters are working hard to meet these targets," the organization's director general, former Turkish diplomat Ahmed Uzumcu, said earlier this week.
"This is an extraordinary situation for the OPCW," Uzumcu added. "It is unprecedented. We are at the beginning of a difficult process, and there are significant challenges."
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