The chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland, was pressed Friday morning to explain where the decision to award this year's Nobel Peace prize to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) came from.
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The prize, he explained at the press conference after the announcement of the award, was not given for the disarmament of Syria's chemical weapons, an operation that began less than two weeks ago. It was given for fifteen years of quiet and diligent work that has to date dismantled over eighty percent of the "declared" chemical stockpiles around the world.
It's easy to understand Jagland's distress. After all, he is still under pressure today to explain the farcical decision by his committee four years ago to award the prize to then freshman American President Barack Obama, a leader who has yet to bring peace to a world still sinking into war and bloodshed. But despite this criticism, and despite the sad irony that the prize has been awarded less than two months after some 1,400 Syrian citizens were murdered by the Assad regime in the Damascus suburbs, almost certainly by Sarin-carrying rockets, OPCW does carry out a vital role. The organization failed to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but it had no mandate to act there. Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention only last month and OPCW could not have carried out inspections there as it has so far in 86 countries.
In the absence of an international body with a proven track record, one which already dismantled the entire chemical arsenals of India, Albania and South Korea - and most of the remaining stockpiles in the U.S, Russia and Libya - the Americans and the Russians could not have signed last month's agreement to begin disarmament in Syria. The first experts' team is already at work, locating and destroying the Assad regime's shells, rockets, and mixing equipment. They are now preparing to remove chemical materials out of the country for disposal. A second team will be on its way in a few days.
The process has been praised by the American administration, which is watching closely. There is a still a long way to go and the concern over Syrian attempts at hiding at least part of the weapons are always present, but so far, this has been an unexpected success.
It may not bring the murderous civil war in Syria any closer to an end – for every death from chemical weapons, there have been a hundred killed by "conventional" means. Still, the OPCW is succeeding in its task, where other much more famous "peacekeeping" bodies are dismally failing. Even if the decision contains a dose of wishful thinking, it is based on past achievement. The Nobel should strengthen OPCW's operations in Syria, help raise additional funds for a complex and expensive project, and also open it up to necessary criticism if it fails to reach its objectives. This is certainly one of the most justified decisions by the Nobel committee, which hasn't always excelled in its choices in recent decades.
There is an Israeli angle here, despite nearly all the attention being around disarmament of the Syrian arsenal. Asides of course from Syria's civilians, the main beneficiary of the OPCW's work in Syria is Israel. If the organization is allowed to continue unhindered over the next year, the only real strategic threat over Israel's home-front (until the Iranians decide, and if they ever succeed, in building a long-range nuclear weapon) will have been removed. This is a huge bonus for a country that has spent billions on protecting its citizens from a potential chemical attack (a defense that is still far from complete). On the other hand, the fact that Israel (which signed, but did not ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention) is in the company of North Korea, Sudan, Egypt, Angola and Myanmar, as non-members, will remain to its shame.
The ongoing debate within Israel's security establishment between those who continue to believe in "chemical opacity," and that Israel's enemies should keep on guessing whether it has such weapons, and those who are certain that Israel has sufficient strategic assets and that it would be better to confirm to international standards on the chemical issue, will not be determined by the Nobel Committee in Oslo.