Will Peace Prize attention pressure Syria to fulfill its chemical arms obligations?

BY News Desk  October 11, 2013 at 8:50 PM EST

The 2013 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for its work to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention. The group has gained attention recently for its assignment to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal. Will their Nobel Peace Prize help further the cause of eliminating chemical weapons and pressure Syria to make good on its pledge? For more on the work of the OPCW, Ray Suarez speaks with Charles Duelfer, a former UN weapons inspector.

MP3 Link JUDY WOODRUFF: And we return now to the Nobel Peace Prize and the little-known group that won the award.

Ray Suarez has more.

THORBJORN JAGLAND, Norwegian Nobel Committee: The Nobel Peace Prize for 2013 is to be awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: The announcement in Oslo, Norway, honored a group formed in 1997 and affiliated with the United Nations. Since then, the organization, based in The Hague, has enforced the Chemical Weapons Convention banning the production and use of such weapons.

THORBJORN JAGLAND: Recent events in Syria where chemical weapons have again been put to use have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: In August, the U.N. assigned the OPCW to investigate alleged chemical attacks by the Syrian military. This week, the group’s experts began inspecting and destroying Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile of poison gas and nerve agents, with a goal of finishing by mid-2014.

The group’s director general voiced hoped today that the world will refocus on Syria.

AHMET UZUMCU, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: I truly hope that this award and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria will help broader efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people.

RAY SUAREZ: Syrian rebels criticized the prize. The Syrian National Coalition said it misses the real point.

KHALED SALEH, Syrian National Coalition: It seems that the world insists on forgetting that we have over 110,000 fallen heroes using conventional weapons, and yet the world, for reasons that are obvious to everybody, focuses on the issue of chemical weapons that only killed less than 1,400 people.

RAY SUAREZ: The Assad government said the Peace Prize underscores its credibility in cooperating with the inspectors.

To tell us more about this year’s Peace Prize winner, I’m joined now by Charles Duelfer, a former top United Nations weapons inspector.

And is it fair to say that outside your line of work, the OPCW wasn’t a widely known organization?

CHARLES DUELFER, former chief U.S. weapons inspector: Well, it’s one of these organizations with a lot of letters in it, but the key thing that they do is they implement the treaty that bans chemical weapons, and they have been around for about 15 years, and they have been pretty successful over those 15 years.

The number of countries left with chemical weapons is very, very small. So the prize not only recognizes the work being done in Syria, but it recognizes the work they have done for the last 15 years, which is quite substantial.

RAY SUAREZ: Since they won, they have been described in several ways, U.N.-associated, U.N.-affiliated. What is the nature of the organization? Do they get money, support, staff from the U.N., or are they really independent?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, it’s complicated.

The implementing organization for this treaty is in fact separate from the United Nations and the Security Council, but it does have a relationship. It’s important in this case where the Security Council, which is mandating the disarmament of Syria, has elected to use the OPCW as their implementing arm.

So, they’re tied together in a common mission here. The Security Council, with Russia, the United States, France, China, the U.K., with veto power, and they have the ability to really make this higher law, are causing OPCW to act in Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: What they’re doing in Syria, confiscating, cataloging, and then destroying chemical weapons, is that a kind of expertise that it not widely distributed that you really need an organization like this to do?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, there aren’t — in many ways, this is a good thing. There aren’t that many chemical weapons around. There aren’t that many chemical weapons experts, so to get rid of this stuff, you do need a mix of talent. You need chemists. You need people who are familiar with the safety issues and know how to respond if there’s an accident.

You need security people, because, in Syria, there’s a lot of security issues. So there’s a mix of people that they need they’re going to have to be hiring, frankly, to execute this mission.

RAY SUAREZ: They are now in Syria because, in part, Syria finally became a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Is that what gives the OPCW the authority to do this work, that once you become a signatory, you are submitting yourself to the gaze of this outfit to check that you’re handling these weapons?

CHARLES DUELFER: That’s exactly right, Ray.

Syria made the decision, largely based on advice, I think, from Russia, to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, and in doing that, they assume a lot of obligations, to have inspectors, to disarm. So, there’s this long process and there’s a long track record for accomplishing this that they have to now follow.

The Security Council has laid down a very tough timeline and time schedule and it also increased some of the authorities of the weapons inspectors itself to execute this mission.

RAY SUAREZ: And, as far as you know, are they doing a good job in Syria?

CHARLES DUELFER: So far, I think both sides are doing what they signed up for. The weapons inspectors are there. And they’re beginning to destroy production and munitions in Syria.

And Syrians have so far laid out what they have got with pretty good credibility. So, you know, sometimes, good things happen. So far, so good.

RAY SUAREZ: When organizations like Doctors Without Borders, Medecins Sans Frontieres, win the Nobel Peace Prize, it helps them a great deal in their outreach to the world, in their fund-raising, in their name recognition.

Is OPCW the kind of outfit that actually needs a boost to its profile along with its contributions?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, I have to suspect that the committee, which is a Norwegian committee, elected to select OPCW because they could make a difference at this point in time.

The prestige associated with the prize, I think, will probably make it more likely that Syria — that Syria will fulfill all its obligations. And, in fact, they do need to raise money, and having the Nobel Prize and that prestige will help them get the resources to execute this mission.

I think it brings attention to a problem which has been global, which they’re — we’re near eradication, in a sense. In some ways, I think I would compare with to the effort to get rid of smallpox. They’re pretty close to getting rid of all the chemical weapons, declared chemical weapons by countries on the planet.

RAY SUAREZ: So, quickly, before we go, who are the final holdouts? Where can you still find chemical weapons, these weapons that are judged as just beyond use, odious by the rest of the international community?

CHARLES DUELFER: Well, there’s two parts of the answer to that. One is that there are the countries who have declared, but they haven’t — they haven’t gotten rid of them all yet. And that’s largely the United States and Russia, where they have massive stocks left over from the Cold War. And they’re still working their way through getting rid of those.

But there’s a few other outliers who haven’t fully subscribed to the CWC or joined it at all at this point. And in the region, Egypt kind of stands out. They have not subscribed to it. I think there is going to be now increasing pressure on those few remaining countries to in fact join with the rest of the world on this.

RAY SUAREZ: Charles Duelfer, thanks a lot for joining us.

CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Ray.