The Negrense, who heads inspector training at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, yesterday said that he hopes that winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year will boost the OPCW’s campaign to finally eradicate chemical weapons from this planet.
Franz Ontal, 49, told the DAILY STAR, that the award ceremony will be held in Oslo, Norway on December 10 and OPCW Director General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, will accept the Peace Prize on behalf of the organization.
“I am part of the group that is helping prepare the Nobel Laureate exhibit opening in Oslo the day after,” he said.
Ontal said the announcement that OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize definitely took them by surprise.
“By 11th October, when the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, we already had three teams working in Syria for a week and the PeacePrize was the last thing on anyone’s mind at the time,“ he said.
That OPCW’s may win the prize started as a rumor at 8 a.m. on October 11 and, within three hours, the organization received official word, he said.
“I’d say myfirst reactions were of inner jubilation, followed by a quiet satisfaction that OPCW’s more than sixteen years of difficult and largely unsung work in the shadows of international arms control were finally being recognized,” he said.
The recognition by the Nobel Committee is an incredible honor and the publicity that it generates will definitely highlight the international mandate of the OPCW, he said.
As recent events in Syria so tragically demonstrated, there remains much work to be done, Ontal pointed out.
The immediate effect of the award was a boost in morale for the inspectors who were already on the ground in Syria, he said.
“I hope that the Peace Prize will underline the fact that OPCW is in Syria as a neutral entity that does not confer any importance on one faction over another. We have been sent by the international community to perform a task and to carry it out in a transparent, efficient and safe manner,” he said.
Ontal also said that, perhaps, “the Nobel will put more pressure on the few non-signatory countries left to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, so we may finally eradicate CW from this planet.”
“We also have a number of staff members in other branches who are from the Philippines or have Philippine ancestry. We, along with our colleagues from over eighty nations, all share in the honor of the prize,” Ontal said.
Before OPCW, Ontal said he worked as a paramedic for the Fire Department of New York’s Emergency Medical Services Division, working mostly in Brooklyn from the late 80’s up to 2006.
Ontal joined OPCW in 2006 as an Inspector, Health and Safety Specialist.
“In 2009 I joined the Inspectorate Training Cell as an instructor and eventually became the Head of Inspectorate Training in 2012. So now I supervise all matters related to the training of inspectors, but first and foremost, I remain an inspector and still deploy on missions,” he said.
New inspector training lasts for about four months and takes place in the Netherlands and other member States. This includes toxic chemical training, employing live chemical warfare agents, as well as mock inspections at active CW and industry sites, he said.
After their initial training, OPCW inspectors usually undergo a minimum of 25 training days per year to maintain their skills, Ontal added.
Asked if working in the field does not scare him, Ontal said “Fear is not necessarily a bad thing if you know how to use it. Fear keeps people sharp and thwarts overconfidence.”
“Ours is obviously a hazardous profession: high explosives and chemical agent are a bad combination in any workplace. Thus, OPCW maintains truly stringent health and safety policies and risk management protocols that are both rigid and dynamic at the same time,” he added.
Because of these safety controls, road traffic accidentshave actually proved to be a higher risk compared to the actual CW destruction, he said, but added that he is speaking pre-Syria.
“Presently we are carrying out our mandate in the midst of an active armed conflict, untrodden ground for us as an organization. From OPCW’s founding, we have not had any major casualties from our inspections. This is a record that we are trying to keep,” he said of OPCW’s work in Syria.
The OPCW is active in all of the possessor Member States, countries that have declared Chemical Weapons stockpiles, such as Russia, Libya and the US, he said.
Because the OPCW also verifies the destruction of old and abandoned CW from the 1stand 2ndWorld Wars, they also conduct inspections in Western Europe and China, he added.
“We have inspectors that maintain a 24/7 presence in countries that are actively destroying their CW inventory, verifying that every single warhead or bomb containing chemical agent has been destroyed and the agent neutralized,” Ontal said.
“We also have a verification regime for the global chemical industry, tracking and verifying production data of certain chemicals that may pose a threat to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This means that OPCW inspectors may also show up at chemical plants all over the world, including the Philippines,” he added.
OPCW is actually a non-career organization with a limited tenure of seven years. “Last year, the Director General was authorized to extend the tenure of personnel who are directly involved in the destruction of CW up to a maximum of 10 years, which means I am winding down my time of service in the OPCW,” he said.
Ontal, grew up at the Victorias Milling Co. where his father was a doctor, and in Bacolod City, his Manhattan-based brother, Rene, said.
Ontal is the fourth of six children of the late Dr. Pat Ontal, company physician of VMC, and the former Lydia Teves Gamboa.
He graduated at La Salle High School Bacolod, Class of 1980, completed his undergraduate degree in Biology and began premed studies at La Salle College Bacolod, before immigrating to the New York metropolitan area in the 1980s.*Carla P. Gomez