Given the choice between recognizing the efforts of chemical weapons inspectors and those of a Pakistani teenager who campaigned publicly in the Swat valley for the education of girls despite death threats from the Taliban, was shot in the head as a result, and is now continuing her campaign after recovering – I know whom I would have chosen for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize: Malala Yousafzai.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has a good case, and nothing should be taken away from its staff. Since the body’s formation in 1997, it has been one of the more successful disarmament bodies, verifying the elimination of 82 percent of the chemical weapons stocks that member states have declared. In Syria earlier this year, the OPCW also – for the first time in its history – sent inspectors into a conflict zone to collect samples and verify a chemical weapons attack. They seem to have done the job well. And now they are piling back into Syria at significant personal risk to verify and destroy the chemical weapons stocks of a murderous regime.
The case for the OPCW, however, would surely be much stronger – or potentially weaker, but in either event more certain – in 2014. For the next nine months or so, the organization’s inspectors will be doing their jobs. We’ll find out later whether they are successful. We’ll know whether they took extreme risks from armed ill-wishers on either side of Syria’s civil war, or spent a lot of time in hotels. We’ll find out if they nailed not only the weapons President Bashar Assad has declared, but also the ones he hasn’t. And we’ll know whether their efforts laid the ground for ending the slaughter in Syria using conventional weapons. Right now that’s all a big question mark.
The Nobel committee is developing a habit of offering the peace prize as a kind of advance payment on great deeds to come, which in such cases tells us more about the priorities of the committee members than the actions of the winners. President Obama is the obvious case in point, when he was essentially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for getting elected and not being George W. Bush. True, Obama had already made a good speech about eliminating nuclear weapons, but that was a speech – he hasn’t been able to make much more progress on the substance than his predecessors.
I wonder whether the Nobel committee would give Obama the peace prize today, knowing what they do now about how he performed in office: That record includes a massive increase in drone warfare and revelations about the National Security Agency’s expansion of digital spying on his watch. It is certainly arguable that Obama still deserves the peace prize, but I doubt the Norwegians would be giving it to him now, knowing what he actually did as president, warts and all.
My guess is that next year the OPCW would have been a slam dunk for the prize. This year, though, I don’t see how they compete with the bravery of Malala and her family, who took such extraordinary risks to press for a cause – the education and therefore empowerment of that 50 percent of the world’s population who are women – that is no less important than eliminating chemical weapons.