MOSCOW — The small Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was still getting used to its unaccustomed role at the center of world affairs, overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, when it won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
“The news of the Nobel Peace Prize was really overwhelming,” said Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of The Hague-based agency. “I see it as a great acknowledgement of a success story.”
Until minutes before the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee revealed its choice in Oslo, speculation had centered on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago for defending education for girls. But just as it did last year when it selected the European Union,the committee took the world by surprise.
“We are now in a situation in which we can do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction,” Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, said. “Of course this is a very important message.”
On Aug. 21, a sarin gas attack in Syria killed more than 1,000 civilians, a reminder to the world of the horror chemical weapons visit on their victims. An estimated 100,000 people have died in the 21 / 2-year conflict.
OPCW inspectors were in Syria as part of a U.N. team at the time of the August chemical attack and subsequently investigated it, despite coming under sniper fire at one point. The team later produced a widely acclaimed report that documented the use of sarin in the attack and that indirectly implicated the Syrian government.
OPCW inspectors returned to Syria at the beginning of October. About two dozen inspectors are there, attempting to find and oversee the destruction of an estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons — in the middle of a civil war, accompanied by unarmed U.N. guards, with security entrusted to a Syrian government that doesn’t control the entire country.
Jagland said the committee hoped the prize would have implications beyond the Syrian conflict, including encouraging signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention such as the United States and Russia to step up destruction of their stockpiles.
“The crisis in Syria highlights the need to do away with these weapons,” he said. “This is about disarmament, which goes straight to the heart of Alfred Nobel’s will.”