from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The 2013 Nobel Message: Hold the Line Against Chemical Weapons

October 11, 2013

Blog Post

In awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Norwegian Nobel Committee had three clear objectives. The first was to reinforce the global taboo against chemical weapons, violated by the large-scale sarin gas attack on civilians in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, which the Obama Administration says was launched by Syrian government forces. The second was to bolster the work of OPCW inspectors newly arrived in Syria as they seek to locate, quarantine, and destroy that country’s one thousand ton arsenal. The third was to chastise international laggards, including the United States and Russia, who have failed eliminate their remaining stockpiles of these horrific weapons.

The obscure OPCW, created to supervise implementation of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), may be the most important international agency nobody has ever heard about. It certainly has a daunting mandate. The CWC is the first international treaty to outlaw the production, stockpiling, and use of an entire category of weapons, in effect declaring them beyond the pale. It requires all parties to declare their chemical weapons holdings and CW production facilities, and to submit and carry out plans to destroy both. It is the job of the OPCW, from its headquarters in The Hague, to ensure that state parties actually live up to these obligations.

The actual day-to-day operations of the 189-country OPCW, including supporting country inspections, are undertaken by a modest Technical Secretariat, whose director general supervises a permanent staff of approximately five hundred and manages a budget of some $100 million (with major inspections requiring additional contributions from UN member states). Beyond resource constraints, the OPCW faces major hurdles in fulfilling its mission. One of the most acute is the so-called dual-use dilemma. Many of the subcomponents of chemical weapons (as well as the machines required to fabricate and deliver them) have other legitimate applications, particularly in the world’s massive chemical industry. Globally, there are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of facilities where precursor and toxic chemicals could be diverted into illicit weapons programs. Beyond this practical challenge, many countries, particularly in the developing world, lack the capacity to comply fully with their CWC obligations, even where they have the desire.

And yet the OPCW has some impressive weapons of its own. Perhaps the biggest is the authority under the CWC to conduct challenge inspections—“any time, anywhere,” with no right of refusal—to ensure compliance by a state party. Sovereignty absolutists take note: The United States, like all other parties to the CWC, agreed to this unprecedented provision, even though it would allow foreign inspectors to walk into any facility on U.S. soil. The Republican-controlled Senate approved the treaty, by a vote of 74-26, because three-quarters of senators understood that a voluntary sacrifice of absolute U.S. autonomy was the price of getting other countries to do the same. U.S. legislators acted despite private sector concerns that allowing such inspections could open the door to industrial espionage. Such is the price of global security in a world of potentially catastrophic cross-border threats.

By honoring the OPCW, the Nobel Committee reinforces one of the world’s most important but vulnerable taboos: a global prohibition on the use of poison gas to kill human beings. By the 1990s, a century of slaughter—from mustard gas on the Western Front to Zyklon B in Hitler’s abbatoirs to tabun, sarin and VX in Halabja, Kurdistan—had persuaded the world that chemical weapons were qualitatively different from and more heinous than conventional weapons, not least in their potential for indiscriminate use. The 2013 prize is intended to express the world’s continued revulsion against such weapons and its determination to reinforce their prohibition in the face of Syria’s brazen actions.

Its second purpose is to ensure that the OPCW inspectors, having finally gained access to Syria, have the global political backing to do their job. The Nobel Committee is aware of the inspectors’ unprecedented misson: to declare an entire country chemical weapons-free within nine months. Nothing on this scale, at this pace, has ever been attempted, much less in the midst of a civil war. As a practical matter, the mission will depend on compliance from a regime in Damascus that has a well-deserved reputation for treachery, ample opportunities to play cat-and-mouse with inspectors, and powerful external patrons in Russia and Iran.

The prize’s third and most pointed objective is to shine a spotlight on CWC parties that are lagging in the implementation of their disarmament obligations. In announcing the prize, the Nobel Committee explicitly took to task the United States and Russia for failing to meet the April 2012 deadline for the the complete elimination of their once-massive CW stockpiles. The United States has now destroyed 90 percent of its arsenal, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the practical effect of perceived foot-dragging is to reduce confidence in the CWC and weaken the CW taboo. If the world’s leading military powers themselves are not “going to zero,” what incentive is there for weaker states to do so?

This marks the second straight year that the Peace Prize has gone to an international organization (last year it was the European Union) rather than an individual. In bestowing its award on the OPCW, the Nobel Committee has offered a useful reminder that multilateral institututions, for all their faults, remain essential pillars for a peaceful world order.