OSLO: Recalling the “burning, blinding and suffocating” horrors of chemical weapons, the head of a watchdog trying to consign them to history accepted the Nobel Peace Prize Tuesday, urging Israel and other nonmembers to embrace the organization.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said such toxic tools of warfare have an “especially nefarious legacy,” from the trenches of World War I to the poison gas attacks in Syria this year.
“You cannot see them. You cannot smell them. And they offer no warning for the unsuspecting,” Uzumcu said as he collected the $1.2 million award in Oslo on behalf of the group.
“And we only need to look at the fate of the survivors of such attacks – people destined to spend the rest of their lives suffering unbearable physical and psychological pain – to understand why such weapons must be banned,” he added.
The OPCW was formed to enforce a 1997 international convention outlawing chemical weapons. It worked largely out of the limelight until this year, when it received its most challenging mission to date: overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
An Aug. 21 poison gas attack killed hundreds of people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, while tens of thousands have been killed by conventional arms in fighting between President Bashar Assad’s forces and opposition fighters since the conflict began in March 2011.
Syria in September agreed under a deal arranged by the U.S. and Russia to destroy all of its 1,300 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other lethal agents, averting U.S. missile strikes.
The Nobel Peace Prize was announced on Oct. 11, just days before Syria became the OPCW’s 190th member state.
“It is of course a huge challenge for the OPCW to manage to destroy all these weapons under the conditions of war and chaos prevailing in the country,” Nobel committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said. “The anonymous inspectors from the OPCW do an extremely important and difficult job.”
Jagland called on the U.S. and Russia to speed up the elimination of their own stockpiles and urged the six countries that have not signed or ratified the chemical weapons convention – Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan, Israel and Myanmar – to do so.
The call was echoed by Uzumcu, who said Angola, Myanmar and South Sudan were preparing to join the pact.
“Now since Syria has become a member country, I think [Israel] can reconsider,” Uzumcu told Reuters.
Israel signed the convention in 1993 but has never ratified it.
“I don’t see any excuse for not joining the convention,” Uzumcu said. “Three [nations] are very close to membership and I hope the others will reconsider their positions.”
“The only consolation is that [the Aug. 21] attacks led to renewed efforts by the international community to eliminate them,” Uzumcu said, referring to chemical weapons around the world.
Work in Syria is hampered by security challenges and needs more money, but the Syrian government is doing its best to cooperate and OPCW expects soon to secure a port where the deadliest chemicals can be neutralized offshore, he said.
“There are some contacts, which are underway and we may be informed within a week to 10 days,” Uzumcu said, without naming the port. “The Syrian government has been quite cooperative, constructive and transparent so far.”
The U.S. is donating a naval ship and equipment to destroy the most dangerous chemical weapons, but securing a port has proven especially difficult and the OPCW is at risk of missing its Dec. 31 deadline to remove these weapons from Syria.
Getting rid of the less dangerous weapons is also a challenge, unless more funds are secured, Uzumcu said.
The OPCW hopes to remove all chemical weapons from Syria by Feb. 5 and to destroy them by June 30. The most dangerous of the chemicals, about 500 tons, will be processed by the U.S. and stored at an undetermined location.
The U.S. ship cannot sail into a Syrian port so current plans call for Danish and Norwegian merchant ships to get the chemicals out, some to be transferred to the U.S. vessel and the less lethal ones to commercial chemical plants for incineration.
When the prize was announced, some in Syria lamented that it would do nothing to end the bloodshed inflicted with conventional weapons, a point that Jagland also recognized in his speech.
“On the road to a more peaceful world, however, it is nevertheless important to combat the most monstrous weapons first, the weapons of mass destruction,” Jagland said.
The awards in medicine, physics, chemistry, literature and economics were also presented Tuesday by Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf in Stockholm’s Concert Hall.