The OPCW wins Nobel by default

by | Oct 16, 2013


The award of the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague. This has come as a surprise – even to the OPCW. So far, according to the OPCW’s own records, only Albania and India have completely destroyed their chemical weapon stockpiles. The OPCW has a long way to go and why now?

The answer lies in a five-letter word – Putin. The OPCW got the Nobel by default. The only way to dodge the claim of Russian president Vladimir Putin for a Nobel was to sidestep gingerly and instead to award his contribution in the abstract. That explains the metaphysics of the decision to honor the OPCW. 

Looking back at the entire year behind us, it is clear that international security came to a flashpoint on August 30 when the United States president Barack Obama threatened to launch a “limited, narrow act” against Syria – shorn of diplomatese, when he threatened to launch a militarily attack against Syria. To cut short a dramatic story played out on the world stage over the next ten-day period, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s timely initiative to bring Syria’s chemical weapons under international control compelled Obama to come back to the path of negotiations. 

The entire world community watched with bated breath this drama unfolding and heaved a sigh of relief when the Syrian leadership agreed, along with a chorus of western opinion – including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon who demanded “quick measures” on Putin’s initiative. 

There can be no two opinions that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was Putin’s by moral and political right. But the influential forces that decide on Nobel, the “powers that be,” have decided otherwise. The two overriding reasons why Putin was overlooked can be easily identified. 

One, Nobel has a consistent position in being hesitant in awarding the Peace Prize to Russian leader. Mikhail Gorbachev was the solitary exception in 1990 for his “leading role in the peace process which today characterizes important parts of the international community”. Can it be that Russia lacked statesmen who contributed to world peace through the past 90-year period in international life before Gorbachev? 

Put differently, Nobel has a mental block when it comes to Russia. It preferred to honor the dissidents in Russia. It made some strange decisions. It would honor Henry Kissinger for negotiating the ceasefire in Vietnam. But Le Duc Tho snubbed the Nobel committee for that bizarre decision that called upon him to share the award with his American interlocutor who had an ignominious role in raining death and destruction on Indo-China. 

The nadir was reached in 2009 when the Nobel honored Obama with the Peace Prize for no apparent reason. The irony was that Obama was a virtual novice at that time to international politics and the best part of his political life until then was about “community service” in Chicago. 

Alright, Obama pledged during his campaign in 2008 that he would bring the US troops back home from the killing fields in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, quintessentially, what was his contribution? Obama promised to wind down two wars that America launched but failed to win and was afraid to lose. And for that he was awarded a Nobel. 

However, there is a second reason why Nobel has overlooked Putin. Look at it this way. What was Putin’s contribution? Succinctly put, he brilliantly succeeded in persuading the 2009 Nobel Laureate from launching a war of aggression against a sovereign country in 2013 in flagrant violation of international law and the UN Charter. Suffice to say, by awarding the Peace Prize to Putin in 2013, Nobel would have admitted the hollowness of its 2009 decision to honor Obama and exposed itself to ridicule for the patently political (and geopolitical) considerations that largely go into its decision-making. 

But in this case, Nobel is taking a great risk also by awarding the OPCW. Time will tell. The point is, the Syrian matrix is highly complicated and this is far too premature to celebrate or to apportion honor. The horizon looks dark and full of forebodings. The OPCW’s appearance on Syrian soil has not gone down well among the rebel groups, especially the al-Qaeda affiliates – and their mentors such as Saudi Arabia. The detractors are seething with anger that the Syrian authorities are being commended for the excellent cooperation it has been showing to facilitate the work of the OPCW’s experts. Even the US secretary of state John Kerry felt it necessary to compliment the government of President Bashar Al-Assad. 

From the point of view of the detractors, the present encouraging trends may hasten the diplomatic processes leading to Geneva 2, which would mean the surge of the path of dialogue and reconciliation. This is one thing. Even more important, it does not need much ingenuity to foresee that Al-Assad becomes a crucially important interlocutor through the next one-year period for ensuring the success of the OPCW’s mission. But then, what happens to the “regime change” agenda, which was after all the raison d’etre of the past two years’ efforts by countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and so on to stoke the fire of sectarian war in Syria? 

Ironically, on the very same day Nobel announced in Stockholm its decision to honor the OPCW, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a startling disclosure. Lavrov said some third countries (which he refused to name) are training jihadi-recruits on Afghan soil in territories that are not under the control of the Kabul government in the usage of chemical weapons who are to be inducted into Syria. The Russian media had earlier carried such reports too, naming Saudi Arabia for organizing such covert training in the safe havens of extremist groups in Afghanistan. 

The Russian assessment is that the game plan is to stage chemical weapons attacks in Syria and Iraq in the coming months. Of course, if that were to happen, OPCW’s mission would get derailed and a new flashpoint would arise demanding foreign military intervention – in essence, a rollback to August 30. In such an eventuality, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner would be called upon to salvage the reputation of the 2013 Nobel winner, which will of course be something unprecedented in the history of the Nobel. 

The high probability is that Obama may not launch a military attack on Syria. The main reason for that is the strong aversion to wars in the American public opinion. That in turn poses a moral challenge to the Nobel committee in Stockholm: Isn’t it about time the Peace Prize is awarded to the anti-war American lobby that has finally succeeded in creating such a compelling public opinion that the US political establishment is forced to pay heed to? The time may have come to honor Noam Chomsky.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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