Nation & World

A farewell to arms

4 min read

In Q&A, authority on chemical weapons explains the work of little-known Nobel Peace Prize winner

In a move that caught many in the media off guard, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) today.

An international consortium of 189 nations based in The Hague, the OPCW acts as the enforcement arm for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and oversees the inspection and collection of chemical weapons, as well their destruction, in countries that have agreed to abide by the convention treaty.

To better understand OPCW and what the organization does, Harvard staff writer Christina Pazzanese spoke with Matthew Meselson, the Thomas Dudley Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences. Meselson has studied and taught biology in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences since 1961. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons and serves on the board of directors for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

GAZETTE: Were you surprised that the OPCW was chosen, and is it a worthy recipient?

MESELSON: No, I knew it had been nominated, or I thought it had. I didn’t nominate it myself.

No question [on worthiness]. They are responsible, as is the treaty on which they’re based, for the elimination of chemical weapons in nearly every country where there were any. So it’s almost universally subscribed to, and there are only a few nations that haven’t yet joined.

GAZETTE:  What leadership role does OPCW play in working to eliminate chemical weapons globally?

MESELSON: They’re an agency that’s created by the treaty, so the treaty is the Chemical Weapons Convention. They’re the agency that is responsible for receiving declarations of whether a country has or has not got chemical weapons. And then if a country does have chemical weapons, under the treaty, it must declare how many, what kind, where they are, and also the production facilities for chemical weapons.

Then the OPCW inspectors come out and they look at the declared chemical weapons and [at the] chemical weapons destruction facilities, and then it’s the responsibility of the nation that possesses these things to destroy them. But it’s the further responsibility of the OPCW to verify that they have been destroyed. Of course, if a country says we don’t have anything, that’s the end of it, with one exception. But if they say they have factories for chemical weapons or actual weapons, then OPCW comes out and put tamper-proof seals on everything that’s been declared because it may take years to destroy things one by one. So you have to have some way to make sure the weapons don’t get diverted to some improper purpose.

Then periodically the inspectors come back to see the progress and monitor the progress of the destruction. We and the Soviet Union both have huge stockpiles. And we’re still not finished destroying our stockpiles, and neither have the Russians. It’s taken much longer than anyone thought. Both countries are busy doing it; it’s just very slow.

GAZETTE: What effect will this award have on OPCW’s efforts?

MESELSON: It’ll do two things. It will raise the priority of getting the remaining nations to join up — [such as] Israel and Egypt, south Sudan — and it will apply a certain degree of public opinion pressure to get it done. And then it’s a very nice reward for the people who have worked unselfishly for this in many different countries.

GAZETTE: Given that Syria is set to join the convention on Oct. 14, does the selection of OPCW send a political message?

MESELSON: The wheels were set in motion to nominate the OPCW for the prize before the [August] Syrian use of chemical weapons, several months before. Now, whether the Nobel Committee would have chosen some other recipient for the prize if it hadn’t been for Syria, I don’t know. But it was talked about … That I know because I was part of those discussions.

GAZETTE: Does the award perhaps indirectly validate the Assad regime’s stated intent to allow Syria’s full weapons cache to be seized and destroyed?

MESELSON: Of course, to some extent it will let them off the hook, but not entirely. And in any case, it might actually facilitate a diplomatic solution to the problem. As you know, it’s not a simple problem.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.