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Facing security challenges, OPCW prepares to receive Nobel

  • Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Director General Ahmet Uzumcu (L) walks with Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as he arrives at Oslo airport December 8, 2013. (REUTERS/Vegard Grott/NTB Scanpix)

OSLO: When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo Tuesday, its staff will be making preparations to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

In naming the OPCW as the 2013 peace laureate on Oct. 11, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted the organization’s role as a rare example of successful global disarmament.

The chemical watchdog was officially given the prize for its efforts around the world, but the award came at a time when all eyes were on Syria after a nerve gas attack killed hundreds on the outskirts of Damascus on Aug. 21.

OPCW Director Ahmet Uzumcu will be handed the award just weeks before a plan to destroy Damascus’ chemical weapons stockpile gets underway.

According to a U.S.-Russia deal that headed off possible American military strikes against President Bashar Assad’s regime, Syria is to get rid of its arsenal of 1,290 tons of chemical weapons by mid-2014.

The most lethal components are to be moved out of Syria before Dec. 31 to be destroyed aboard the U.S. Navy’s MV Cape Ray, a 200-meter cargo ship equipped with two hydrolysis systems.

Hydrolysis involves breaking down a lethal chemical agent such as mustard gas with hot water and other compounds, which results in a sludge equivalent to industrial toxic waste.

However, the international scheme remains fraught with difficulties, according to the top official from the joint U.N.-OPCW mission.

Despite “significant milestones” already achieved by the team, which has been in Syria since early October, challenges remained, Sigrid Kaag said on Dec. 2.

The shifting security situation in Syria, where nearly 126,000 people have been killed since the brutal conflict broke out 33 months ago according to the latest non-governmental organization figures, was a major obstacle facing inspectors, she said.

To be shipped out of the country, some 150 containers filled with weapons must be transported through a war zone to Latakia, Syria’s main port on the Mediterranean.

Destruction of the remaining chemical weapons is expected to begin early next year.

The OPCW is already widely regarded as being a success – it has 190 so-called States Parties, including nearly all industrialized nations and more than 98 percent of the world population.

Israel and Myanmar have signed its Chemical Weapons Convention but not ratified it, while Angola, Egypt, North Korea and South Sudan have failed to do either.

At the organization’s headquarters in The Hague, there is a sense that the job is almost done. “The genie is almost back in the bottle, it’s just the tail that’s sticking out. We need to make that last-ditch effort to put that tail [back],” said Malik Ellahi, a special advisor to the OPCW’s Uzumcu.

At any rate, the Nobel Peace Prize, which just lost one of its most prominent laureates in Nelson Mandela, has already raised the chemical watchdog’s profile.

The most important impact of the award was that it added “impetus and urgency and a certain moral authority” to the organization’s current mission in Syria, OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said. “We were never, ever really known outside the rather small world of arms control and disarmament ... Suddenly our work has become glamorous.”

“It used to be the OPC... who?” Ellahi added. “Now everybody knows the OPCW.”

The Nobel prize consists of a gold medal, a diploma and a sum of eight million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million).

The prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, medicine and economics will also be bestowed Tuesday, in Stockholm.

 
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