Surprise Winner

The Nobel Peace Prize Goes to … Who?

The Nobel committee unexpectedly handed the award to an anti–chemical weapons group. But in hindsight, it’s no surprise they chose to highlight efforts at disarmament—the heart of the prize’s mission.

10.11.13 12:33 PM ET

With 20-20 hindsight, it’s perfectly obvious that the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons would win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The OPCW is at the heart of efforts to find and destroy Syria’s arsenal of sarin, VX, and other ghastly toxins. Its inspectors are risking their lives right now, trying to carry out their work in the middle of a civil war where no side can be trusted. Who is putting more on the line for peace than those folks?

To be sure, most of the speculation lately was about 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who was shot last year in Pakistan for fighting to be educated, survived, and has since become a powerful voice for women and girls around the world. She just won the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov human-rights prize. She seemed to be everybody’s sentimental favorite.

But doing away with weapons has always been at the heart of the Nobel Peace Prize and dear to the committee in Oslo that awards it. During the 19th century, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and developer of munitions, brought the technology of slaughter into the industrial age. When he died in 1896, he endowed the prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and especially “peace,” not least, to make amends for what he’d wrought on the battlefield. As the committee noted in this year’s announcement, “disarmament figures prominently in Alfred Nobel’s will.”

So, for instance, the committee awarded the 1997 prize to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines after the maiming and killing devices had been scattered all over the landscapes of Africa, South Asia, and the Balkans, and after Jody Miller (and Princess Diana, who had just died in an accident) led highly publicized efforts to eliminate them. In 2005, during one of those times of very high tension between Iran and the West, the prize went to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, who was working to negotiate a way out of the confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Yes, the Nobel Committee does have a penchant for the drama of the moment. (In 2009 it gave the peace prize to Barack Obama, the first black man elected president of the United States, for his “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” although he hadn’t even completed a year in office.) And what could be more topical than the ongoing work of the OPCW in Syria right now?

In September the U.S. seemed on the verge of military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to punish it for the use of internationally banned chemical weapons against rebel factions and civilians. In a surprise turnabout, pushed by his Russian backers, Assad agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, declare his stockpiles, and allow them to be inspected and destroyed. That process is now, already, under way.

The OPCW, based in The Hague, first began its operations in 1997. International condemnation of chemical munitions dated back to the World War I, when they were used to devastating and sometimes unpredictable effect. The Geneva Convention of 1925 banned their used, but not their production and stockpiling.

Not until 1993 was there an international treaty to ban the manufacture and storage of chemical arsenals as well as their use. The OPCW was set up to implement the terms of the accord, and 189 countries are now signatories, but not all have been quick to comply. Both the United States and Russia still have enormous chemical-weapons stockpiles and are years behind on their promises to eliminate them.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a radio interview on Friday that he saw the peace prize “as recognition of contributions made by this organization to global peace over the past 16 years,” but, “also an acknowledgment of our staff’s efforts, who are now deployed in Syria, who are making a very brave effort to fulfill their mandate.”

Clearly there is much work left to be done.