Sometimes, the Nobel Peace Prize has a frontrunner, or perceived frontrunner, as it did ten years ago. That year, Pope John Paul II was the favorite. Václav Havel, the Czech leader, was also in the mix. But the 2003 prize went to an Iranian human-rights lawyer, Shirin Ebadi. She had not even known she was nominated. When the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee presented the prize to her, he noted that the pope had been “among the first to congratulate her.”Havel was often a bridesmaid, by the way. I have a theory about why he and John Paul II never won: The committee gave the 1983 prize to Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader. The committee may well have thought, “Well, we’ve already done Eastern Europe and Communism.” This year, the prize had a frontrunner, certainly a “people’s choice”: Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani heroine. Sixteen years old, she has campaigned for the rights of women and girls in her country. For her troubles, she was shot up by the Taliban last year. After she recovered, she continued her campaigning, providing an example of spectacular bravery. On October 10, the day before the peace prize was announced, she won a different award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given by the European Parliament. She did not win the Nobel. She would have been the youngest winner, beating the current record-holder by miles: Tawakkul Karman, the Yemeni activist, was 32 when she shared the prize (with two Liberians) in 2011. (Martin Luther King, incidentally, was the youngest-ever winner when he won in 1964. He was 35.) Malala may well have turned out to be the most popular peace laureate in Nobel history. But the prize is not a popularity contest—the committee has its own priorities, which should really be Alfred Nobel’s priorities, and it gave the 2013 prize to a little-known group in The Hague: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The group’s job is to be the “implementing body” of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which took effect in 1997. The 2013 prize is a throwback to the early days of the prize, really. The choice is well in line with Nobel tradition (for good or ill). It was in 1904, the fourth year of the prize, that the committee first awarded an institution, rather than an individual or individuals. That was the Institute of International Law, in Ghent (115 miles from The Hague). Another institution won in 1910: the Permanent International Peace Bureau, in Bern. Altogether, 22 institutions or organizations have won the prize, and one of them, the Red Cross, has won it three times. December 10—the date of Nobel’s death—is Presentation Day, and, on that day in Oslo, the chairman of the peace committee will explain at length why this year’s award was given to the OPCW. But a concise explanation has already been given in the form of the committee’s yearly press release, or “the Nobel citation”, as some people (mistakenly) call it. The nub of this year’s press release was that the OPCW had won “for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons.” The committee mentioned the history of chemical weapons, or “chemical means”, from World War I to “Hitler’s mass exterminations” to subsequent “states and terrorists.” The committee reminded one and all that chemical weapons are “taboo under international law.” It also said, “Recent events in Syria . . . have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.” “Underline” and its cognates are very popular words in the language of international conferences and the like. You will hear them at Davos, for example, often. In the course of its press release, the committee issued a special slap: “Certain states have not observed the deadline, which was April 2012, for destroying their chemical weapons. This applies especially to the USA and Russia.” That is known in some quarters as “calling out by name.” The linkage of the United States and Russia in this context is problematic, not to say disgusting, as I will discuss in a moment. The committee further said, “Disarmament figures prominently in Alfred Nobel’s will”—and that is true. Nobel listed three criteria for his peace prize, the first of which is the most important: “fraternity between nations.” He also mentioned “the abolition or reduction of standing armies” (which can be construed as disarmament) and “the holding and promotion of peace congresses” (a phrase that has long seemed quaint). At the end of its press release, the committee made reference to itself: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has through numerous prizes underlined [of course] the need to do away with nuclear weapons. By means of the present award to the OPCW, the Committee is seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons.” It is certainly true that the committee has given many awards relating to nuclear weapons. None of them has won universal applause. In 1985, the committee gave the prize to a group called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, led by two men: an American, Bernard Lown, and a Russian (really a Soviet), Evgeny Chazov. The latter was a member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, and had participated in the campaign of defamation against the 1975 Nobel peace laureate, Andrei Sakharov. Outside the prize ceremony in 1985, there were protests. One of the protesters was a former chairman of the Nobel committee, Aase Lionæs. Someone carried a sign reading, “Find Better Friends, Dr. Lown.” In some years, we have to guess why the committee chose as it did. What was the underlying motivation, whatever the public words? But this year, the committee was quite plain. To quote again, “the Committee is seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons.” Let me be yet plainer: It is because of Syria that the OPCW has won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. If Bashar Assad had not unleashed chemical weapons in August, the OPCW would not have won. After the announcement, a representative of the Nobel prizes’ website, Adam Smith, conducted a phone interview with the director-general of the OPCW, Ahmet Üzümcü. The director-general said, “I think the Nobel Peace Prize, in fact, will give a new impetus and encouragement” to OPCW staff working in Syria. “[T]his will boost their morale” in the fulfillment of “their mission.” This was no doubt a reason for the Nobel committee’s decision. Smith asked Üzümcü about the United States and Russia, the culprits named by the committee. (Even Syria wasn’t named in so blunt a fashion. “Recent events in Syria”, was the committee’s language.) Üzümcü said, “In fact, the United States has reached the level of 90 percent destruction of its own stockpiles, and in the Russian Federation they have reached 76 percent.” These are “quite significant achievements”, he said. He added, “The destruction of chemical weapons is a very costly, labor-intensive, and, in fact, dangerous operation.” He expects the United States and Russia to “fulfill their obligations in the coming years.” That same day, he gave a celebratory speech, saying, “We are a small organization which for over 16 years, and away from the glare of international publicity, has shouldered an onerous but noble task—to act as the guardian of the global ban on chemical weapons.” Well and good. But we should be realistic about the group’s powers and responsibilities. As John Bolton, the American lawyer and diplomat, says in a new piece for National Review, “the OPCW actually has a minimal role in implementing the CWC”, or Chemical Weapons Convention. “National governments are responsible for declaring the extent of their chemical-weapons programs and then destroying them. . . . The OPCW monitors and purportedly verifies this work, but as an observer, not an actor.” Bolton points out that, even in its modest role, the OPCW has not had great success. “Russia has violated the CWC from the outset: filing an incomplete, inaccurate baseline declaration; developing new generations of chemical weapons; and assisting rogue states such as Syria and Iran in establishing their own programs.” This is why, in my view, the Nobel committee’s pairing of Washington and Moscow is unreasonable and offensive. In any event, the choice of the OPCW makes perfect sense, from the committee’s point of view. The OPCW relates to disarmament, which is part of Nobel’s will. Moreover, the issue of Syria and chemical weapons has escalated within the past year. And Nobel says that his prizes—all of them, even the literature prize—should honor work done in the past year. Nobel committees have always felt free to ignore this term of the will. They have often given lifetime-achievement awards. Be aware, too, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee has a strong, permanent attachment to international organizations. If those organizations are associated with the U.N., all the better. Many agencies and personalities of the U.N. have won the Nobel prize. The U.N. itself won in 2001, the centennial year of the prize. (There was a co-laureate that year: Kofi Annan, the U.N.’s then-secretary-general.) Before the U.N., the committee honored the League of Nations, and before the League of Nations, the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Small nations such as Norway can be expected to prize international organizations: For one thing, an international organization is a way for a bit player to be a big player on the world stage. Siv Jensen, the leader of Norway’s Progress party—a Reaganite or Thatcherite party—became the country’s finance minister two weeks ago. Her party is the junior partner in a new government led by the Conservative party. In a 2009 speech abroad, she said, “In Norway, you can get away with criticism of the EU, the World Bank, the WTO, NATO, etc. But do not dare raise any critical question about the U.N. In the Norwegian debate, the U.N. is something sacred.” We now get to the terrible question, Will the 2013 peace prize to the OPCW do any good? Will it discourage the use of chemical weapons? First let me say that the peace prize is capable of doing good, and has. In an interview, Walesa told me that, without the prize, his Solidarity cause could never have succeeded. “There was no wind blowing into Poland’s sail”, he said. “The Nobel prize blew a strong wind into our sail.” In 1996, the prize went to two leaders from East Timor, a place on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, in the general neighborhood of Darwin, Australia. East Timor won its independence from Indonesia shortly after. The Nobel prize was certainly a factor—but so was the Asian economic meltdown of 1997, a development that helped topple the Indonesian dictator, Suharto. It is possible that the 1975 prize helped keep Sakharov alive (and it unquestionably served to keep him in the spotlight). The same can be said of the 1991 prize to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese heroine. The Chinese government does not seem moved by the 2010 prize to Liu Xiaobo: That democracy activist still languishes in prison. Neither was the Chinese government moved, except to anger, by the 1989 prize to the Dalai Lama. Beijing did not loosen its stranglehold on Tibet, although the prize boosted the cause of Tibet. A man such as Bashar Assad does not seem likely to be moved by a Nobel prize. Three days after the prize was announced, Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention. But it had signaled its intention to do so well before, in September. And belonging to a convention is one thing, abiding by it another. One of the worst of all the Nobel prizes was the one given to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then-director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, in 2005. Iran was certainly not moved by the prize. Indeed, ElBaradei’s IAEA had done much to shield Iran from international sanctions and reproofs. The real reason for that award, in my judgment, was to embarrass the United States and its allies over their failure to find weapons of mass destruction, on the shelf and ready to go, in Iraq. In a way, I admire the Norwegian Nobel Committee for passing over Malala Yousafzai and giving the award to the OPCW. Committee members undoubtedly knew that Malala would be a wildly popular choice. They also knew that the public would be disappointed in the award to the dull, faceless OPCW. But they went ahead and anointed the OPCW anyway, for classic Nobel reasons. But will the OPCW genuinely contribute to peace? Has it? On the aforementioned Nobel website, you will find a video game, inviting you to “Help the Peace Doves Disarm the World.” We are exhorted as follows: “Disarm the world of nuclear weapons! You have eight ‘Peace Doves’, each able to disarm one of the eight countries possessing nuclear weapons. Try the game and learn more about nuclear disarmament!” Obviously, it takes more than doves to disarm the likes of Assad. If anything, it takes hawks. If the Nobel committee is going to be naive about weapons of mass destruction—and the testator, Alfred Nobel, was anything but naive, for all his bouts of idealism—it would be better off awarding prizes to gutsy girls who risk their lives for the right to attend school.
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Published on: October 30, 2013A Nobel Prize That Won’t Scare Assad