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Chemical Weapons Watchdog Group Wins Peace Prize


On a Friday it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. There was a surprise pick from Oslo, Norway, this morning.


THORBJORN JAGLAND: The Nobel Peace Prize for 2013 is to be awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, OPCW, for its extensive work for eliminating chemical weapons.

MONTAGNE: That was the chairman of the Nobel Committee earlier this morning announcing the annual award to the international agency that now has inspectors on the ground in Syria finding and destroying chemical weapons. There had been a lot of buzz about other apparent frontrunners - most prominently Malala Yousafzai.

She's the Pakistani teenager who was severely wounded in a Taliban attack because of her campaign to give girls better access to education. But again, this morning the prize went to the OPCW. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen has been covering the group and their work in Syria and joins us now. Good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So the award seems, actually, as it turns out, pretty timely.

KELEMEN: That's right. You know, and often these awards are given to encourage an organization and this is a time when the OPCW is really in unprecedented territory. You know, Renee, just a few weeks ago the U.S. was poised to strike Syria, to punish it, for a chemical weapons attack that occurred in August, but after that the U.S. and Russia hammered out this agreement to disarm Syria by the middle of next year.

And the OPCW is in the center of that. You know, they're having to do this in the midst of a civil war in a very short timeframe and the team, the OPCW, actually had a team in Damascus looking into other incidents of chemical weapons attacks when that sarin gas attack took place on August 21st and those experts came under fire when they went to visit the site and to take samples. So the dangers are very real.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us a little bit about the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, as it's known OPCW. What would it be doing normally?

KELEMEN: It was set up to oversee the chemical weapons convention which went into force in 1997. And that's the treaty that bans the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors. The OPCW oversees the destruction of these weapons, which experts tell me is either done through incineration or neutralization. This is very difficult and sensitive work.

And just to give you a sense of the reach of this organization, they've done work in Iraq and Libya as well as the U.S. and Russia. And, you know, the Nobel Committee pointed out in awarding this prize that the U.S. and Russia have not yet met their deadlines to get rid of their stockpiles. There's also other signatories - Israel and Myanmar - that haven't ratified the convention yet.

This prize will most certainly put pressure on them. And there are non-signatories, including Egypt and North Korea and until recently, Syria.

MONTAGNE: Tell us a little more about some of the other contenders - I just mentioned Malala Yousafzai - these people who were talked about even though negotiations on the committee are very secret so nobody really knows what's going on.

KELEMEN: That's right. I mean, most people were betting on Malala winning the prize. She was shot by the Taliban a year ago and has been an international champion for education. Her age may have been the factor. And she's also had many other awards. Only yesterday, she was given the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize. But also, Renee, the Nobel Committee seems to be giving these prizes to spotlight or help organizations.

You know, you'll remember a lot of people criticized them for giving the President Obama a prize but the committee said today that, you know, you look at the facts and he rescued the arms control regime and started a - did a new agreement on START. So that's been a key issue as well; is they've focused on things like controlling nuclear weapons and doing away with weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. That's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen on this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.