A Nobel Peace Prize for Disarmament

Today Syria becomes the 190th party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).
In the 16 years since entry into force on 29 April 1997, CWC universality now equals that of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which entered into force on 5 March 1970).
The convention extends the 1925 Geneva Protocol’s ban on chemical (and biological) warfare by also comprehensively prohibiting the development, acquisition, transfer and possession of chemical weapons (CW). Indeed, the norm against CW has become so overpowering that a relatively small chemical attack by historical standards in Ghouta (Damascus) on 21 August brought allies and foes of the Bashar al-Assad regime together forcing the Syrian government to formally renounce CW as an instrument of war or deterrence. All of this in a matter of less than seven weeks!

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that oversees implementation of the CWC shuns the megaphone diplomacy typical of non-proliferation debates. In contrast to the highly mediatised accusations of violations of ill-defined non-proliferation norms usually against regimes one does not particularly like, the OPCW plods ahead with weapon elimination under any and all circumstances. Perhaps slowly, but inexorably forward. Not everything is peace and quiet, of course, but the organisation values cooperation and consensus inherent in disarmament most. If one compares the non-proliferation discourse to the many fiery, but short bursts typical of volcanoes with highly liquefied lava, then the work of OPCW represents the more mafic lava. The outsider usually sees the darkened crusts of solidified minerals, and only becomes aware of the steady movement forward when the red glow of new ideas or confrontation cracks the surface. As Syria has experienced in recent weeks, there is no turning of that flow.

Hence the surprise that the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW. In today’s highly mediatised, personality-driven pars pro toto presentation of complex ideas or issues, an individual quickly becomes the conduit and energizer of our Manichaeistic passions for good and evil. The OPCW does not fit into that mould: its persistent low-key diplomacy and technical and science-driven approaches to eliminating existing CW stockpiles and prevention of future CW armament capture the imagination of all but a small community of professionals and civil society constituencies in very few countries. While the Norwegian Noble Committee noted the length of time that was and still is required to construct and implement the norm against chemical warfare, the public associates the OPCW with the war in Syria. In its snapshot view of the subsurface lava flow, it does not understand how the energy of (however slow) the motion can be harnessed in support of that one part of international law that leaves little ambiguity about its purpose. Hence the many outcries that the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize gives legitimacy to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or rewards Russian President Vladimir Putin, or the disappointment over the bypassing of some already highly recognised human rights activists.

An incomplete discourse in condemning chemical weapons in war

Chemical weapons and Nobel prizes clearly are uncomfortable with each other. When in November 1919—one year after the Armistice—the Nobel Committee announced that Fritz Haber was to receive the Prize in Chemistry, an uproar followed. Not so much because he was the father of modern chemical warfare, but because the laurelled invention, the synthesis of ammonia, had enabled Germany to produce sufficient explosives to sustain the First World War for more than four years. In A Higher Form of Killing, authors Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman attribute the title of their 1982 book to a statement Haber made when he was awarded the Nobel Prize:

‘In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.’

Whether Haber actually pronounced these words or words to such effect has become a matter of controversy. No other biography mentions the sentences and they do not appear in his Nobel lecture held on 2 June 1920. The controversy as such, however, is immaterial. The sentiment of a higher-ranking mind set was pervasive in post-war Germany. Chemical warfare is such a complex weapon, wrote Dr Julius Meyer in 1925,

‘that it can only be used and repulsed by an intellectually advanced nation. And if the German Army achieved such great successes in gas battles and gas defence, so this speaks only for its intellectual superiority, but has nothing whatsoever to do with customs and morals.’ (Der Gaskampf und die chemischen Kampfstoffe. Verlag S. Hirzel, Leipzig, 1925, p. 273.)

Without resorting to this type of chauvinistic rhetoric, Haber nonetheless intimated that chemical warfare as practised on the Western front was a more advanced mode of combat that fell outside of the bans on poisoned weapons and poisoning in contemporary international law. (Statement to a special investigative parliamentary committee, 4 October 1923, Untersuchungsausschusses der Verfassunggebenden Deutschen Nationalversammlung und des Deutschen Reichstages 1919-1928, Völkerrecht im Weltkrieg 1914–1918, Vierter Band. Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft für Politik und Geschichte m.b.H., Berlin, 1927, p. 13). The arguments, of course, served the interests of a scientific and industrial elite that had made science ethics subservient to patriotism. They were also part of the post-war battles about justice, in which the Allied Powers wanted to hold Germany solely responsible for gas warfare despite their own massive CW operations.

However, the broader public’s criticism of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry concerned more Haber’s direct contribution to the slaughter of millions on the European battlefields than his role in the 100,000 or so poison gas deaths. Understandable as the latter group represented only about 1% of all fatalities and 10% of all gas victims.

These relative casualty rates from chemical warfare recurred in the 1980–88 Iran–Iraq war and seem to repeat themselves once more in the current Syrian civil war. For the people surviving in the war-torn country and human rights activists, the legal finesse that drove the international community to act over some 1,000 dead in the past few weeks while remaining passive in the face of more than 100,000 fatalities is hard to swallow. Furthermore, to them it seems justice deferred. They view the Framework Agreement by Russia and the United States that pushed the OPCW centre stage in the chemical disarmament of Syria as bestowing legitimacy and respectability on the al-Assad regime. And, of course, it has frustrated the ambitions of the regional backers of the anti-Assad insurgents to draw Westerns powers into their stalemating proxy war.

Disarmament lost and found

Comparing the criticism of Haber and the OPCW suggests that the public will always construct in parallel ways its perceptions of justice, irrespective of mediums to receive or communicate information available to it. Lacking in such debates, whenever they erupt, is a solid disarmament discourse: a profound understanding of what disarmament can and cannot contribute to international peace and security.

Today’s controversy about the OPCW’s Nobel Peace Prize is not new. It arose during and after the First Word War with the violation of the 1899 Hague Declaration (IV,2) on Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on the Laws of War on Land. The international community responded with the Geneva Protocol in 1925, which should have been the precursor to the comprehensive disarmament treaty under negotiation during the early part of the 1930s. In response to chemical warfare in the Iran–Iraq war, French President Francois Mitterrand convened a global conference in Paris in 1989 to restore the authority of the Geneva Protocol. Iraq—a party to and violator of the agreement—was given full diplomatic honours, while one major group of victims, the Iraqi Kurds, were denied access and justice. However, the international community did accelerate negotiations of the CWC, completing the 165-page document just over three years later.

In Syria too the pressure of (chemical) disarmament can be noticed. For over two years, everybody spoke of peace and justice, but nobody talked to each other. After the bilateral Framework Agreement, the adoption of the work plan by the OPCW and its endorsement by the UN Security Council, Russia and the United States have found common ground to jointly try and convene a new meeting to resolve the civil war. The diplomatic machinery to get the parties together to discuss the elimination of all non-conventional types of weaponry in the Middle East region grinds back to life, while at the same time the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council can dialogue over how to best approach Iran to resolve question over its nuclear programme instead of incessant unilateral sanctions and talk of bombing.

As my former colleague at the EU Institute for Security Studies, Florence Gaub, briefed EU Ambassadors last week, civil wars tend to draw out more and more, not in the least because of the massive influx of conventional weaponry and the realignment of warring factions along tribal, cultural or religious affiliations, all of which complicate dialogue towards peace settlement. She added that such wars eventually bleed to death, because nobody can gain the upper hand and the parties must eventually negotiate an end to hostilities. If the chemical disarmament of Syria—however small a dimension of the human suffering in the civil war it addresses—can bring about negotiations before the country is totally exhausted, is this (unexpected) starting point not worth the while?

Disarmament is about justice too. Not the instant justice that many seem to be craving for after the war crimes have taken place. It is about preventing certain war crimes from taking place in the first place. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, disarmament came into being because certain types of military technology were deemed so destabilising to international peace and security, that their elimination or control over their acquisition had to be internationally regulated. And even if war breaks out, their international regulation can prevent escalation of hostilities. That was the contribution of the Geneva Protocol before the Second World War and is the purpose of the CWC today.

The US–Russian Framework Agreement would have been impossible without the existence of the OPCW. If chemical dismantlement can bring the parties together with the hope of ending the civil war, then there is no need for comparative statistics about death and destruction. Just bear in mind that the OPCW operates on an annual core budget that costs less than the purchase of 2 (two) F-16 fighter-bombers (an even much less, if one takes into consideration expenditure for maintenance and the investments in the logistical train behind each plane). Even a short spell of punitive military strikes could easily have equalled the OPCW budget, without bringing (even hope for) chemical disarmament or peace any closer.

A small price tag for the Nobel Peace Prize, but a huge return on investment guaranteed.