By Ben Brumfield and Laura Smith-Spark
(CNN) — A group of chemical weapons inspectors are taking the world closer to peace in the middle of a raging war they cannot stop. For their work in Syria and elsewhere, they received the Nobel Peace Prize Tuesday in Norway.
The prize given to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons at the award ceremony in Oslo consists of a medal, a diploma and a cash award of 8 million Swedish kroner (nearly $1.2 million).
Presenting the award, Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Nobel Committee, said it “goes most deservedly to an organization and its personnel, who have been quietly working to remove an entire category of weapons.”
He also appealed for the warring parties in Syria to lay down their weapons and come to the negotiating table.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu, who accepted the prize from Jagland, hailed what the OPCW had already done — but also looked to the challenges still ahead.
“This is the first time that the Peace Prize has been awarded to an organization that is actively engaged in disarmament as a practical and ongoing reality,” he said in his lecture.
“For sixteen years now, the OPCW has been overseeing the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. Our task is to consign chemical weapons to history forever.”
Many were surprised when the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in October that the OPCW had won the award for work just begun in Syria to eliminate its poison gas stockpiles.
There had been vigorous speculation in the world’s media about who might take home the medal: Possibly Pakistan’s girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai, the teen who was shot for trumpeting her cause, or Congolese physician Denis Mukwege, who treats victims of gang rape.
But, intended or not, the committee shifted the focus of the public eye back onto the war in Syria. Its stated aim in choosing the OPCW was to point out the progress made in eliminating chemical weapons around the world.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which created the OPCW and calls on signatories to destroy their stockpiles. The OPCW began its work in 1997.
“It marks a big step forward that Syria has joined the OPCW, and that plans are now being drawn up for the destruction of all its chemical weapons,” Jagland said Tuesday.
“It is of course a huge challenge for the OPCW to manage to destroy all these weapons under the conditions of war and chaos prevailing in the country, and in much less time than is normally available.
“The anonymous inspectors from the OPCW do an extremely important and difficult job.”
Uzumcu also acknowledged the unprecedented challenge the mission faces and praised the “dedication and personal courage” of staff members.
Jagland appealed for the six countries worldwide that have not yet signed and ratified the convention to become OPCW members — Israel, Myanmar, Angola, North Korea, Egypt and South Sudan — to join the 190 nations that have done so.
“The members represent 98% of the world’s population and territory as well as 98% of the world’s total chemical industry. Eighty percent of the chemical weapons have been removed. Ninety percent of the production capacity has been destroyed,” he said.
“We are accordingly quite close to achieving the highly ambitious target of totally eliminating chemical weapons.”
Few had heard of the OPCW before it was tasked with dismantling Syria’s chemical stockpile, but at the time the prize was announced, Jagland said the committee had had it in mind before that development.
In his speech Tuesday, he appeared to defend the committee’s choice, saying that while some people thought the prize should always go to “bold individuals with firm principles,” the world needed more than they could do.
“Peace is not brought about by individuals and idealists alone,” he said. “We also need practical politicians, capable of moving the world away from confrontation within often narrow limits. We also need institutions, not least the global ones within the United Nations.
“It is the interplay between all of these that can create peace.”
Uzumcu also emphasized the importance of a “pragmatic” approach and said the wider legacy of the work of the OPCW would be in showing a path for other disarmament initiatives to follow.
“Destiny has ruled that we rid the world of chemical weapons, and that we achieve this in our lifetime,” he said. “This is our place in history, and this is the future we are creating. A future for which our children and grandchildren can be truly thankful.”
CNN’s Mick Krever contributed to this report.
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