The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) took the Nobel Peace Prize ahead of the popular favorite, the fantastically impressive Pakistani activist Malala Yousufzai, and the internet is furious about it. CNN’s Piers Morgan tweeted that he was “very disappointed” with the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision. Shadi Hamid, a Middle East analyst at Brookings, even went so far as to imply that the Nobel Committee was handing a victory to Assad.
Not to take anything away from Yousufzai — her bravery after being shot in the face by the Taliban is astonishing, and she would have been an excellent choice — but the folks who staff OPCW aren’t slouches. In fact, they’re helping save the world.
So maybe that’s a touch hyperbolic. But working to impose the rule of law on warfare really is vital work, deserving of the Nobel Committee’s recognition.
It’s tempting to see this award as being just about Syria. On grounds of their work in Syria alone, the OPCW deserves consideration: as Joshua Keating notes, OPCW teams are currently removing weapons suited primarily for mass murder of civilians from one of the world’s most vicious war zones with virtually no armed protection. It’s risky and potentially life-saving work.
But this is about much more than Syria. Here’s the core of the Nobel Peace Prize’s announcement of the award:
During World War One, chemical weapons were used to a considerable degree. The Geneva Convention of 1925 prohibited the use, but not the production or storage, of chemical weapons. During World War Two, chemical means were employed in Hitler’s mass exterminations. Chemical weapons have subsequently been put to use on numerous occasions by both states and terrorists. In 1992–93 a convention was drawn up prohibiting also the production and storage of such weapons. It came into force in 1997. Since then the OPCW has, through inspections, destruction and by other means, sought the implementation of the convention. 189 states have acceded to the convention to date.
The Nobel Committee is awarding the OPCW for its historic role in preserving the norm against chemical weapons use and, more broadly, the idea that we can collectively tame the violence inherent to war.
There’s at least two reasons to believe this is a uniquely good decision this year. First, norms like the one restricting chemical weapons use thrive on validation and legitimacy. The more widely a norm seems accepted in the international community, the stronger an effect it is likely to have on deterring chemical weapons use.
The Nobel Prize is perhaps the highest prestige award in the world. Giving it to the OPCW in a year where chemical weapons are uniquely high-profile will contribute, probably imperceptibly but importantly nonetheless, to cementing the norm against chemical weapons’ place in the world.
Second, awarding an institution — rather than, say, a politician — clarifies the hard work that goes into making international law work. The Chemical Weapons Convention and the rest of the law of the war don’t just magically enforce themselves; they’re bolstered by diligent, difficult, and sometimes dangerous work by international institutions and organizations. The Red Cross, which does this kind of work, has won the Nobel Peace Prize three times; awarding the same honor to the OPCW highlights the bewildering breadth and diversity of the institutions working to make the world safer.
The project of taming war has been working. Violence is on the decline, and purposeful efforts to reduce the harm by war deserve some of the credit: U.N. peacekeepers, for instance, have demonstrably and “dramatically” saved lives. For being an especially visible cog in this broader peace machine, the OPCW deserves the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.