In a surprise upset, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the second international organization to win in two years following the European Union’s win last year. Alone among the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize was created by Alfred Nobel to be awarded yearly to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The award was given to the OPCW, created in 1997 following the ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons. The committee also gave the Prize as a way to encourage other states to sign the CWC or fulfil their obligations within it. These include the United States and Russia, who missed an April 2012 deadline for destroying their chemical weapons.
Ensuring that no state uses chemical weapons is a critical issue. The CWC is a widely respected treaty, ratified by 189 states. Bringing attention to the OPCW’s work in dismantling chemical weapons stocks throughout the world, and to the need to continue this process, is laudable.
Overshadowing this explanation, however, will be Syria. The Assad regime used chemical weapons in Ghouta, outside Damascus, on 21 August 2013, killing at least 734 people. Syria has agreed to ratify the CWC and give up its chemical weapons, a move endorsed by the UN Security Council, and the OPCW will destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stocks by mid-2014. However, the OPCW has only been on the ground in Syria since October 1st, and has only started to dismantle the weapons. Certainly the recent Security Council decision is an important step towards preventing future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. But the agreement contributes little to the general protection of the civilian population from the pervasive violence that has engulfed their country and which has killed over a hundred thousand people.
With the notable exception of Syria, chemical weapons use has become very rare. The last use to kill over a thousand people was by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish population of Halabja in Northern Iraq in 1988. Richard Price has argued there is a contemporary taboo against the use of these weapons, stating that: “The taboo was broken more than it was honoured early on, but today stands out as one of the most successful efforts to curtail the horrors of war.” The CWC and the OPCW have certainly contributed to this work, but it would be an exaggeration to suggest they have led it.
What of the candidates who were widely touted as favourites but did not get the prize: Ms. Malala Yousafzai and Dr. Denis Mukwege? Ms. Yousafzai, who won the European Union’s Sakharov human rights prize yesterday, has a story both gripping and horrific. From the Swat Valley in Pakistan, she first blogged anonymously, then spoke publicly about the need for girls and women to be educated. For this, she was targeted and shot by the Taliban. While she has recovered and is now based in Birmingham, the shooting brought her – and the need for worldwide access to education – into the global spotlight. Since her recovery, she has spoken at the UN, where she argued that “I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child…” And she is the public face of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s campaign for universal education as UN special envoy for global education.
Dr. Mukwege’s story is equally gripping. Working in Bukavu, he is the Founder and Medical Director of the Panzi Hospital, where he and his colleagues have treated about 30,000 female survivors of sexual violence. He has also taken on a public role as an advocate for the rights of women. In September of last year, he made a speech at the UN where he argued “we need action, urgent action, to arrest those responsible for these crimes against humanity and to bring them to justice.” For this speech, he too faced an assassination attempt in October, narrowly escaping an attack that killed a security guard.
By winning, either of these candidates would have reflected the growing international recognition given to the women peace and security agenda as it has been mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and later resolutions. This body of international policy draws attention to the specific challenges borne by women and girls in conflict settings and the important, if often neglected, roles women and girls can play as brokers of peace and conflict resolution. It also would have reinforced the theme of the joint Prize awarded two years ago to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current President of Liberia, Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist, and Yemini journalist Tawakkol Karman. And it would have pointed to the growing realisation that women security should be central, not sidelined, when we analyse and seek to respond effectively to current conflict scenarios.
The OPCW is certainly deserving of the Prize. But it does feel like the Committee has been affected by the politics of the past few months, when it could have made a clear statement about the critical work that peacebuilders undertake in areas of conflict throughout the world.