The Nobel Committee’s Rebuke to Washington’s Unilateralism



The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), one of the most effective instruments for international arms control, sends an important message to those who have insisted that unilateral military action is the best means to eliminate and prevent the use of these deadly agents. Although a case can be made that it is more appropriate for the Peace Prize to go to individuals struggling for justice rather than to international organizations, this is not a bad choice.

After all, the OPCW does not just deserve such recognition for having overseen the elimination of 80 percent of the world’s chemical arsenals over the past two decades. It deserves the honor for having challenged the illegal and ineffective U.S. policy that going to war against alleged chemical-weapons-possessing countries is the only means of dealing with these dangerous weapons.

The OPCW enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which has been ratified by all but seven of the world’s countries. The OPCW inspects laboratories, factories, and arsenals, and oversees the destruction of chemical weapons. The organization’s first and most successful director general, elected in 1997, was the Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, praised in the Guardian newspaper as a “workaholic” who has “done more in the past five years to promote world peace than anyone.” Under his strong leadership, the number of signatories of the treaty grew from 87 to 145 nations, the fastest growth rate of any international organization in recent decades. During this same period, OPCW inspectors oversaw the destruction of 2 million chemical weapons and two-thirds of the world’s chemical weapons facilities. Bustani was re-elected unanimously in May 2000 for a five-year term and was complimented by Secretary of State Colin Powell for his “very impressive” work.

Struggles with Washington

However, by 2002, the United States began raising objections to Bustani’s insistence that the OPCW be allowed to inspect U.S. chemical weapons facilities with the same vigor it does for other signatories. More critically, the United States was concerned about Bustani’s efforts to get Iraq to sign the convention and open its facilities to the same surprise inspections as in other signatories. If Iraq did so, and the OPCW failed to locate evidence of the chemical weapons that Washington claimed Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed, it would have severely weakened a major rationale for the planned U.S. invasion and occupation of that country.

U.S. efforts to remove Bustani by forcing a recall by the Brazilian government failed, as did a U.S.-sponsored vote of no confidence at the United Nations in March. That April, the United States began putting enormous pressure on some of the UN’s weaker countries to support its campaign to oust Bustani. Washington also threatened to withhold its financial contribution to the OPCW, which constituted more than 22 percent of its entire budget. Figuring it was better to get rid of its leader than risk the viability of the whole organization, a plurality of nations in an unprecedented special session called by the United States voted to remove Bustani.

The administrative tribunal of the International Labor Organization, the UN’s highest administrative panel, later recognized the U.S.-engineered ouster as illegal and an “unacceptable violation” of principles protecting international civil servants. The OPCW session’s Swiss chairman, Heinrich Reimann, referred to it as an “unfortunate precedent,” referring to Bustani as a “man with merit.”  The Associated Press reported that the United States was concerned that Bustani “might have helped defuse the crisis over alleged Iraqi weapons and undermined a U.S. rationale for war.” Bob Rigg, a New Zealander working with the OPCW at that time observed that U.S. hostility toward the organization was rooted in the belief that “they couldn’t rely on OPCW to come up with the findings the U.S. wanted.”

The principal architect of Bustani’s ouster, then-Undersecretary of State John Bolton, conducted a series of “menacing” and “threatening” communications with the OPCW leader to force his resignation. George W. Bush later named Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Preventing War

The subsequent OPCW leadership has been weaker and more averse to challenging Great Power prerogatives. Indeed, the OPCW is currently in the process of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal while the vast stockpiles belonging to neighboring U.S. allies Israel and Egypt remain intact, which indicates that the organization’s priorities are based less on objective criteria and more on realpolitik. Indeed, despite the CWC’s initial requirement that parties to the convention eliminate their stockpiles by 2012, the United States has suffered no consequences for still being at least six years away from completely eliminating its chemical weapons arsenal.

Nevertheless, the OPCW’s existence made it possible for the international community to prevent a U.S. attack on Syria, which had seemed inevitable just weeks ago, and the likely disastrous consequences that would have followed. When the Obama administration initially threatened to deal with Syria’s chemical arsenal through unilateral military action and both domestic and international public opinion emerged in opposition, the OPCW’s was ready and able to find a peaceful and far more effective means to begin the process of eliminating that country’s chemical stockpile.

Despite efforts by the United States to either cripple the organization or focus its energies primarily toward governments Washington doesn’t like, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the OPCW serves as recognition that the key to disarming chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons comes not from war, threats of war, of selective enforcement of the geo-strategic preferences of great powers, but through universal enforcement. As history has shown, universality is critical for any serious disarmament effort, and the OPCW has demonstrated how it can work.


Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.


  • goedelite

    The igNobel PP Committee may have “challenged” the US on using aggression (by Nuremberg and UN Charter standards) to respond to the use (but not the supplying or storing) of chemical weapons, but it deserves no reprieve from condemnation for its several awards to most undeserving laureates and institutions (eg. Barack Obama and the EU). Further, the igNobel PP Committee sidestepped the highly deserving prominence of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange. An award to them would have truly challenged the proto-fascism and militarism of the United States as well as the puppet-behavior of UK, German, France, Australia and other major states. It would have encouraged adversarial journalism, mostly absent in the US, and even given courage to the cowardly Congress of the US (a perhaps far-fetched hope!)

    My view of any igNobel PP laureate is diminished by acceptance of the award. I know that much money accompanies the award and is hard to refuse. The rationalization of the good that can be done with the money is always present when it is available from a questionable source. One would think that the courage it takes to be a candidate for the PP would be sufficient to set the rationalization aside and refuse it until the Norwegian PP Committee has made amends for its past behavior.

  • goedelite

    The elimination of “80% of the world’s chemical arsenals over the past two decades” is a fine thing to do, but it is merely symbolic when the arsenals that count are the nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenals of the United States. When the US is ready to give up its weapons of mass destruction, it will find ready partners throughout the world.

    Giving the igNobel PP to institutions or to persons whose acts are merely symbolic is almost as bad as giving it in the hope of future merit, as was done in the case of Barack Obama.

    Incomparably better is the award to persons who have already done not just symbolic good but substantive good against the state terrorism and domestic proto-fascism of the USA. That is what Manning, Snowden, and Assange have done. Others who have done substantive good are Vladimir Putin, Rafael Correra, Evo Morales, and President Madura. These people are all opponents of the US Empire, military threat to the world, and violator of its own Constitution and Bill of Rights it contains.

  • imperialhubris

    Can’t you see this is a ploy to seize control of global arms trade?