Here's to the 2013 Nobel Laureate, the OPCW

Honoured : Ahmet (left) posing with Fauziah at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

Honoured : Ahmet (left) posing with Fauziah at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

But remember, a handful of countries still have well-documented stockpiles of chemical weapons.

LAST week, the Nobel Peace Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organisation for the Protection of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – an obscure disarmament entity that was established in 1997 and now has almost universal membership.

At the Oslo City Hall in the presence of King Harald V of Norway and Queen Sonja, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü accepted the prize on behalf of the organisation. He brought along with him a handful of his dedicated staff and two representatives from each regional group. Malaysia was chosen alongside Iran to represent Asia. That was the closest that a Malaysian has come, thus far, to receiving a Nobel Peace Prize.

Dec 10 coincided with the anniversary of the death of its founder Alfred Nobel who, in his will, determined that the prize should go “to the person who has done the most or best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

The Peace Prize that comes with a diploma and a sum of money has been given almost annually to individuals and organisations. Some clearly deserve this highest honour, such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

Others were more controversial – Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho arguably created war before peace was found in IndoChina. Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin never resolved the Palestinian issue, and the nomination closed a mere eleven days after Barack Obama took office, rendering him undeserving of the prize.

The city of Oslo came to a halt to honour this year’s Nobel Laureate, as it does every year, I would presume. As the Laureates stood at the balcony of the Grand Hotel, waving to the crowd below, a torch light parade walked past. At the Nobel Peace Centre, throngs of children swarmed us. Celebrity status reached its zenith with the concert thrown in honour of the Laureates, with performances from major Hollywood artists.

But more than the pomp and grandeur that accompanied the two-day extravaganza, was the satisfaction that recognition had finally come to this organisation, which had worked so tirelessly to do its part for a world free of chemical weapons. At the traditional Nobel Banquet held for the Nobel laureates, Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee related how surprised the OPCW was to learn that they were to receive the prize.

Jagland said it is normal for people who worked quietly in one corner, oblivious of the limelight, to be taken aback to receive a call from the committee, especially with so many other favourites with highly publicised profiles. According to Jagland, the committee’s choice of the OPCW was after having observed its work for more than a decade.

Norwegian historians tracking the Nobel Peace Laureates agreed that this year’s laureate is one of the most solid ever. Øivind Steversen noted the lack of criticisms surrounding the choice.

Ivar Libæk, who specialises in the Peace Prize, agreed that this year’s Nobel Laureate is clearly in line with Alfred Nobel’s will. Another historian, Asle Sveen, said that this prize sparkles and it is almost impossible to criticise the laureate who has received widespread praise.

Stringent check: UN weapons inspectors collecting samples during their investigations at Zamalka, east of Damascus, Syria, in this handout image dated Aug 29 provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen. -EPA

The OPCW has been working quietly, albeit diligently, to meet its objective to ban the use of chemical weapons worldwide. Today, 190 countries are State Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and although a young organisation of 16 years, it has eliminated 82% of all declared weapons. According to estimates, in three or four years to come, there will be only 1% of chemical weapons left to destroy.

Yet 1% is a relative term as countries like Angola, South Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, Egypt and Israel are not party to the Convention and some of these countries are known to have well documented stockpiles of chemical weapons. The recent accession of Syria to the CWC was a milestone in the move to destroy the remaining stockpiles, worldwide.

At the banquet, I casually asked some local invitees around me what they thought of the Nobel Laureates so far, having themselves been invited almost every year to witness the event. A common remark was that the Laureate Lectures, given by recipients at the prize ceremony, have lost their lustre.

The lectures are no longer inspiring and their messages are not loud and clear. And while it is true that not everyone can be an evangelical orator, there has to be at least some ‘life’ to the lecture.

At this year’s lecture, the message should have been how destructive chemical weapons are, and a re-telling of a real-life experience would have doubtless held the attention of the world. But this was not to be.

Instead, the message that was delivered – how the OPCW would use the prize money – did not receive any reaction from the audience, who doubtless did not catch it amidst the other remarks they were sifting through. The Laureate Lecture was a reading, not a delivery.

The photograph exhibition at the Nobel Peace Centre was equally uninspiring. There was however a photo of a Malaysian with his team of inspectors in Libya.

Renowned photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin, who either did not manage to capture the horror of chemical weapons or was instructed to only show rows of the OPCW teams in pose, failed to educate visitors to the photo exhibition. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then photographs of burnt victims, blistered by mustard or sarin gases for example, would have been the essay to prove the OPCW’s worth.

Sir Winston Churchill best described the horrors of chemical weapons in his writings about “how bombs from the air were cast down indiscriminately. Poison gas in many forms stifled or seared the soldiers. Liquid fire was projected upon their bodies. Men fell from the air in flames, or were smothered, often slowly, in the dark recesses of the sea. Europe, and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle, not armies, but nations broke and ran”.

The world cannot wait for another Churchillian speech to describe the horrors of chemical weapons, not when the horrors are close at hand. The 2013 Nobel Peace Laureate Lecture would have been an excellent occasion to bring home this horror, but then again, not everyone one can be a Churchill.

> Datuk Dr Fauziah Mohamad Taib is Malaysia’s ambassador to the Netherlands and its Permanent Representative to the OPCW. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.