Nobel Peace Prize rewards chemical watchdog's perseverance

A general view taken on Aug 31, 2013, shows the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, The Netherlands. The world chemical watchdog said on Friday, Oct 11, 2013, that it hoped its Nobel Peac
A general view taken on Aug 31, 2013, shows the headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, The Netherlands. The world chemical watchdog said on Friday, Oct 11, 2013, that it hoped its Nobel Peace Prize win would convince countries to ban chemical weapons. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

THE HAGUE (AFP) - 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 as averting military strikes on the country in the wake of a devastating chemical attack on a Damascus suburb.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime is accused of using the arms in an August 21 attack that killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus, and has denied the charge.

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's inspectors, who are already hard at work.

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 focused on anything else than other than this mission," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said.

The organisation is expected to hold a press conference later on Friday.

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," Mr Luhan said.

"It's our persistence, without any fanfare... it's the slow grinding work that we hope over time will be more appreciated." The OPCW's work was the "subject of years and years of patient diplomacy in which we've demonstrated that we do diplomacy very, very well. We've kept everybody aboard, we keep adding states parties, we're approaching universality."

But Mr 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.

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.

The CWC has four main tasks: the destruction of all chemical weapons under strict verification, monitoring of the chemical industry to prevent development, helping protect nations against chemical threats and boosting global cooperation to strengthen implementation.

It contains no specific punitive measures for countries that use chemical weapons however.

The document says only that the OPCW can "in cases of particular gravity, bring the issue, including relevant information and conclusions, to the attention of the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Security Council."

Between 1997 and 2013 the OPCW carried out 5,167 inspections on the territory of 86 signatory countries, including 2,720 inspections of chemical weapons sites, according to the organisation's website.

Some 81 percent of world stocks of declared chemical agents have been destroyed under supervision, it says.