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Behind the scenes in Syria

Marcus Lütticke / ng
October 11, 2013

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) received the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." DW looks at the agency's mission and how it works.


The large, C-shaped building in The Hague, the Netherlands, indicates what the 500 employees deal with on a daily basis - chemical weapons. Since its inception in 1997, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been tasked with enforcing the convention against the use of the dangerous arms.

On Friday (11.10.2013) it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee praised the OPCW "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons" and added that disarmament figured prominently in Alfred Nobel's will.

The accord overseen by the OPCW bans the use and production of chemical weapons and requires all existing arsenals to be destroyed. While it's generally reports from the United Nations that garner international attention, such as with the use of chemical weapons in Syria, it's the OPCW employees who do most the work, analyzing samples in their own laboratories in the Netherlands.

They then send the samples to a handful of specialized laboratories in various countries, including the Military Institute for Protective Technologies in Münster in the German state of Lower Saxony.

The UN's task is to present the findings, according to OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan. "We work for the UN and it owns the findings," he explained.

epa03844814 An exterior view of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) building in The Hague, The Netherlands, 31 August 2013. According to reports, the UN inspectors who collected samples in Syria on alleged chemical weapons use will visit the organization before analysis of the samples begins at various laboratories. EPA/EVERT-JAN DANIELS
The OPCW's headquarters in The HagueImage: picture-alliance/dpa

That also applies to the organization's chairman, Ahmet Üzümcü from Turkey, who has been in charge since 2010.

First mission in conflict region

Most recently, the OPCW has sent a team to Syria, where it began destroying chemical weapons stockpiles and production facilities this month after an international agreement was reached and Syria joined the convention against chemical weapons.

All members of the convention have committed themselves to destroying their chemical weapon arsenals. The OPCW was founded as a global watchdog, with 125 inspectors - who must be granted access to relevant military facilities at all times - overseeing the process.

They are funded by the member states and their contributions are similar to those for the UN. But despite its close links with the UN, the OPCW is an independent organization, contracted by the United Nations.

Almost all countries have joined the chemical weapons convention, which is part of international law. The exceptions are Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan; Israel and Myanmar have not ratified it yet.

Measurable success

"We can confirm that 80 percent of all existing chemical weapons have been destroyed," OPCW spokesman Luhan said of the weapons the organization had been called on to deal with. Ralf Trapp, who helped set up OPCW and is now an independent consultant, confirms that number, but he also sounds a critical note.

In this photo released Saturday Aug. 31, 2013 by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, samples brought back by the U.N. chemical weapons inspection team are checked in upon their arrival at The Hague, Netherlands. Samples that the team collected in Syria are expected to be repackaged and sent to laboratories around Europe to check them for traces of poison gas. (AP Photo/OPCW, Henry Arvidsson)
OPCW inspectors at work in SyriaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"All chemical weapons were supposed to have been destroyed 10 years after the OPCW was founded, 15 years at the most."

So the process should have long been completed. Russia and the US, in particular, are lagging behind. The two countries have the biggest chemical weapons arsenals.

According to the OPCW, Russia used to have 40,000 tons of chemical weapons, 75 percent of which have been destroyed; the US had 30,000 tons, 90 percent of which have been destroyed.

"It's 10 times as expensive to destroy chemical weapons as it is to make them," Trapp explains. "It's not easy to completely destroy those big arsenals without harming people or the environment. It takes time and, above all, a lot of money," he added.

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