Last week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international organization designed to prevent the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons won a Nobel Prize. Regimes do this sometimes – the EU won last year.
Nobel Prizes are strange things in the age of twitter and blogs. Ostensibly, the purpose of the prize is to reward those who make outstanding contributions to science, medicine, literature and peace – however the significance of these awards to society is a little more complicated. Following the announcement of the award, the press, Twitter and the blogosphere was awash with discussions of the wisdom of the award. Some commentators were pleased, usually referring to the determined and unsung work of the institution. Some made observations about the timing of the award- referring to the chemical weapon massacre which recently took place in Syria. Others pointed to other contenders for the prize. Finally, a few took the opportunity to criticise the institution. These criticisms ranged from the insinuation of hypocrisy with regard to old chemical weapon stockpiles still awaiting destruction in the US and Russia (which has proved a complicated and expensive process), to shady illuminate style characterizations of the OPCW.
The OPCW Nobel prize serves to remind us of a few things about the nature of the relationship between societies and institutions which aim to keep abhorrent weapons out of reach. The first, is that such institutions occasionally suffer guilt by association. Most people never think about biological or chemical weapons – and when they do, repulsion is a common response. These responses are sometimes directed at the very institutions which seek to prevent such atrocities. The Second, is that public, and to some extent political attention to chemical and biological weapons is sporadic. This attention also tends to be most focused at times in which shortcomings in the ability of world leaders and institutions to predict and prevent the use of such weapons are revealed.
However, there has also been a final, more constructive sentiment, which emphasises the continued work behind the scenes in the times of lulls in public attention. A key hope is that the current boost given by this award will galvanise support for existing work being done at the OPCW – in order to keep the watch-dog fit and alert.
That said, the response to this award should not be uncritical support of the OPCW. Instead it should be seen as an opportunity for a range of stakeholders such as scientists, governments, NGO’s- and indeed publics, to reflect on how to help prevent and mitigate similar atrocities in the future.
Below is a talk by of Dr. Daniel Feakes. Strategy and Policy Adviser at Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Within this talk he considers the impact of the OPCW Nobel Prize