THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Efforts to eliminate chemical weapons won a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for the global watchdog trying to destroy Syria's stockpiles of nerve gas and other poisonous agents.
By giving its prestigious prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee turned the spotlight both on Syria's devastating civil war and on a type of weapon that has horrified nations since World War I.
The reaction in Syria was notably polarized. A senior Syrian rebel called the award a "premature step" that will divert the world's attention from "the real cause of the war" while a lawmaker from Syria's ruling party declared the Nobel to be a vindication of President Bashar Assad's government.
The OPCW was formed in 1997 to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, it has largely worked out of the limelight until this year, when the U.N. called upon its expertise to help investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
"The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law," the Nobel Committee said in Oslo. "Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons."
Friday's award comes just days before Syria officially joins as OPCW's 190th member state on Monday. OPCW inspectors are already on a risky U.N.-backed disarmament mission based in Damascus to verify and destroy the government's arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents.
"Events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work still to be done," OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu (AKH'-meht ooh-ZOOM'-joo) told reporters in The Hague. "Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons."
"I truly hope that this award and the OPCW's ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria will (help) efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people," he said.
He said the $1.2 million prize money would be used "for the goals of the convention" — to eliminate chemical weapons.
By giving the peace award to an international organization, the Nobel committee highlighted the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, without siding with any of the groups involved. The fighting has killed more than 100,000 people, devastated many cities and towns and forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes and country.
U.N. war crimes investigators have accused both Assad's government and the rebels of wrongdoing, although they say the scale and intensity of regime abuses are greater than the rebel abuses.
Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria's main opposition bloc, called the Nobel award "a premature step."
"If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it's a wrong perception," Safi told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Qatar.
"But demolishing the regime's chemical weapons alone will not bring peace to Syria, because many more people are dying because Assad's troops are killing them with all types of conventional weapons," he said.
Fayez Sayegh, a lawmaker and member of Assad's ruling Baath party, told the AP the award underscores "the credibility" of the Damascus government. He said Syria is "giving an example to countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons."
After an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in Syria, Assad faced the prospect of possibly devastating U.S. strikes against his military. To avert that, he admitted his chemical weapons stockpile and his government quickly signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention and allowed OPCW inspectors to enter the country.
The first OPCW inspection team arrived in Syria last week, followed by another this week. They have already begun to oversee the first stages of the destruction of Assad's chemical weapons.
The United Nations and the United States praised the Nobel decision.
"Since that horrific attack, the OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms that shocked the conscience of people around the world," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement from Kabul. "Today, the Nobel Committee has rightly recognized their bravery and resolve to carry out this vital mission amid an ongoing war in Syria."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted the recognition came nearly 100 years after chemical weapons were used in World War I.
"Like the United Nations, the mission of the OPCW was born from a fundamental abhorrence at the atrocities of war," he said. "Together, we must ensure that the fog of war will never again be composed of poison gas."
In the past, seven nations — Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia and the United States, along with a country identified by the OPCW only as "a state party" but widely believed to be South Korea — have declared stockpiles of chemical weapons and have or are in the process of destroying them.
However, the Nobel committee noted that some countries have not observed the deadline of April 2012 for destroying their chemical weapons. That applies especially to the U.S. and Russia, Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said.
"I have to recognize that they have particular challenges. They have huge stockpiles of chemical weapons," he told the AP. "What is important is that they do as much as they can and as fast as they can."
The struggle to control chemical weapons began in earnest after World War I, when agents such as mustard gas killed more than 100,000 people and injured a million more. The 1925 Geneva Convention prohibited the use of chemical weapons but their production or storage wasn't outlawed until the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997.
"During World War II, chemical means were employed in Hitler's mass exterminations," the prize committee said. "Chemical weapons have subsequently been put to use on numerous occasions by both states and terrorists."
According to the OPCW, 57,740 metric tons, or 81.1 percent, of the world's declared stockpile of chemical agents have been verifiably destroyed. Albania, India and "a third country" — believed to be South Korea — have completed the destruction of their declared stockpiles.
An OPCW report this year said the United States had destroyed about 90 percent of its stockpile of the weapons, Russia had destroyed 70 percent and Libya 51 percent.
Nations not belonging to the OPCW include North Korea, Angola, Egypt and South Sudan. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the convention.
The OPCW did not figure prominently in this year's Nobel speculation, which focused mostly on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last October for advocating education for girls.
"She is an outstanding woman and I think she has a bright future and she will probably be a nominee next year or the year after that," Jagland, the committee chairman, told The Associated Press. He declined to comment on whether she had been considered for this year's award.
The European Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for uniting a continent ravaged by two world wars and divided by the Cold War.
Established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prizes have been handed out since 1901. The 2013 winners in medicine, physics, chemistry and literature were announced earlier this week and the Nobel economics award will be announced on Monday.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. AP reporters Mark Lewis in Oslo, Norway, and Bassem Mroue and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.