The abduction, in northern Syria, of seven Red Cross workers is a stark reminder of how dangerous it is to work in that war-torn country, even for such an internationally recognised humanitarian organisation, even for people doing non-partisan work aimed at helping anyone who needs it.
We know from the history of Middle East conflicts that non-combatants in the region risk their lives every day while fulfilling their mission. This is an important factor to keep in mind when looking at the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
When it was announced last week the the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to the OPCW, there was a certain amount of consternation. The popular favourites had been Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl campaigner and Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor.
But the award for the OPCW was timely, appropriate and richly deserved.
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded for the person or organisation that “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. On this basis, the OPCW is clearly well qualified.
Towards a safer world
The OPCW came into existence in 1997, when the first 100 nations signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Since then the OPCW has worked to oversee and check the implementation of the CWC. Today there are just five nations that have not signed: Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria (due to sign on Monday). A further two nations have signed but not ratified the convention: Israel and Myanmar.
Under the CWC, every signatory nation reports to the OPCW, via their national authority, all production and movements of scheduled chemicals. This is a massive task in its own right, but in addition to this the OPCW maintains a team of inspectors who visit sites to check that reporting is accurate.
Each signatory nation has ten years in which to destroy their weapons. There are now 189 countries which have either completed, or nearly completed, this process. So in just 16 years the world has been freed from an enormous quantity of deadly chemical weapons. Recent tragic events in Syria are a horrifying reminder of why the work of the OPCW is so important.
The implementation of the CWC, under the auspices of the OPCW, has been one of the most successful international treaties ever. The OPCW has very quietly and very efficiently gone about its duties. More than 5,000 inspections later, and after verifying the destruction of over 50,000 tonnes of weapons, the world is significantly safer.
Building a global consensus
However, Article XI of the CWC requires the OPCW to promote the peaceful use of chemistry. Hence the OPCW runs a variety of programmes which include conference support, research funding, laboratory assistance training and support, an equipment exchange, internships and analytical skills training programmes. However, the flagship activity is the Associate Programme.
This was first run in 2000 - and the University of Surrey has been involved since its inception and has helped in its design. This programme seeks to build capacity worldwide. More than 100 countries have been represented in this annual nine-week programme which introduces the associates to the OPCW and the provisions of the CWC.
The Associate Programme has also proved a very successful source of recruitment for weapons inspectors- about 20 of the current inspectors have been recruited from the Associate Programme.
Sensitive and difficult work
The OPCW also has to be prepared for the possibility of a Challenge Inspection, under which a signatory nation can demand the inspection of a specific site in another signatory nation, if it has grounds to suspect a violation of the CWC. No Challenge Inspections have yet occurred, but the OPCW trains rigorously for this eventuality as it has the potential for a logistical nightmare. Access has to be obtained, perimeters secured, complex sensitive analytical and forensic equipment shipped and set up, site and paperwork searches conducted, samples taken and analysed and local staff interviewed. All this has to be done in a strict time limit, with teams of observers, the host national authority, the site owner, and civil, diplomatic and military agencies all coordinated according to detailed and complex rules.
The OPCW has been called in to assist the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in the inspection and destruction of the chemical weapons in Syria. Syria agreed to join the CWC last month and they formally come under the treaty this week.
It goes without saying that, in the middle of a civil war, conditions in Syria are extremely hazardous. OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu has called for both sides to observe temporary ceasefires so that the inspectors can do their work. It is the first time the OPCW has worked in an active war zone since it was set up in 1997 - and some of the sites inspectors will need to visit are very difficult to access because of the savage fighting.
“They change hands from one day to another, which is why we appeal to all sides in Syria to support this mission, to be co-operative and not render this mission more difficult. It’s already challenging,” he told the BBC, noting that mortar shells had fallen next to the hotel inspectors are staying in and that there had been exchanges of fire in areas they were visiting.
So far the 60-strong team of weapons inspectors from the UN and OPCW have reached five out of at least 20 possible sites for the production and storage of weaponised chemicals.
We hope that the award of the Nobel Prize will encourage the remaining non-signatories to join up - particularly Egypt and Israel, whose cooperation in the complete elimination of chemical weapons in the Middle East would be a major step forward for peace indeed.
This article was co-authored with David Faraday of Evolve Leadteam Ltd which designs and runs training courses for OPCW personnel