(Reuters) – The global chemical weapons watchdog charged with overseeing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile during a civil war won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a relatively small organization with a modest budget, dispatched its experts after a sarin gas attack killed more than 1,400 people in August.
Their deployment, supported by the United Nations, helped avert a U.S. strike against President Bashar al-Assad.
Thorbjoern Jagland, the head of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, said that the award was a reminder to nations with big stocks, such as the United States and Russia, to get rid of their own reserves “especially because they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria”.
“We now have the opportunity to get rid of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction….That would be a great event in history if we could achieve that,” he said.
The OPCW’s mission was unprecedented in taking place during a civil war that has riven the country and killed over 100,000 people. Members of the Hague-based OPCW team came under sniper fire on August 26, but OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said this week Syrian officials were cooperating in the process.
The award marks a return to the classical disarmament roots of the prize after some recent awards, such as to the European Union last year and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.
Those awards led to criticism that the committee was out of line with the spirit of prize, founded by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.
His 1895 will says the prize should go to one of three causes – “fraternity between nations”, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the formation and spreading of peace congresses.
Washington blamed President Assad for the August sarin attack, a charge he denied, instead blaming rebels. Facing the threat of a U.S. military strike, he eventually agreed to destroy Syria’s sizeable chemical weapons program and allow in OPCW inspectors.
Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head a year ago by the Taliban, had been the bookmakers’ favorite to win the prize for her campaign for girls’ right to education. The OPCW only appeared in speculation in the final hours before the prize.
The $1.25 million prize will be presented in Oslo on December 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.
The OPCW, based in the Hague in the Netherlands, has about 500 staff and an annual budget of under $100 million.
The OPCW, which has 189 member states, said Syria was cooperating and it could eliminate its chemical weapons by mid-2014, provided they received support from all sides in its civil war.
Chemical weapons experts believe Syria has roughly 1,000 tonnes of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, some of it stored as bulk raw chemicals and some of it already loaded onto missiles, warheads or rockets.
Under a Russian-U.S. deal struck last month, Syria must render useless all production facilities and weapons-filling equipment by November, a process begun over the past several weeks.