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LONDON — Hardly anyone knew it existed before last month. Its work has been criticized and its employees shot at. Bigger names, including that of a teenager, were thought to be ahead in line for the world’s most prestigious award.

But the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the watchdog group at the forefront of the effort to divest Syria of its chemical-weapons arsenal, was declared the recipient Friday of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Until minutes before the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee revealed its choice in Oslo, speculation centered on Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago for defending education for girls.

But just as it did last year when it selected the European Union, the committee took the world by surprise.

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“We are now in a situation in which we can do away with a whole category of weapons of mass destruction,” Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, said. “Of course this is a very important message.”

“The recognition that the peace prize brings will spur us to untiring effort, even stronger commitment and greater dedication,” Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said at OPCW headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands. “I truly hope that this award, and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria, will help broader efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people.”

The 16-year-old agency has worked in relative obscurity in its mission to implement the global Chemical Weapons Convention banning the use and production of chemical arms. But it began grabbing headlines last month as the United States looked increasingly set to launch airstrikes against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a regime the Obama administration and others accuse of gassing rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people. Syrian officials deny launching the attack.

OPCW staff members were part of the U.N. team that investigated the attack, at one point coming under sniper fire. After an agreement last month between the U.S. and key Syria ally Russia that averted the threatened U.S. airstrikes, the OPCW is the lead organization in the daunting effort to neutralize Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons.

Whether it can succeed amid continued fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels trying to oust Assad remains an open question. Jagland said the committee hoped the prize would have implications beyond the Syrian conflict, including encouraging signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, such as the United States and Russia, to step up destruction of their stockpiles.

“The crisis in Syria highlights the need to do away with these weapons,” he said. “This is about disarmament, which goes straight to the heart of Alfred Nobel’s will.”

Nobel, the Swedish industrialist who invented dynamite, left the Nobel Prizes as his legacy. The ceremony for this year’s Peace Prize, worth $1.2 million, will be held Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commended the agency’s work. “The OPCW has taken extraordinary steps … to address this blatant violation of international norms,” he said Friday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the OPCW had strengthened the rule of law in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation. “Thanks in large measure to its efforts,” he said, “80 percent of the declared chemical-weapons stockpiles have been destroyed.”

The Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997. Nearly 200 countries, representing 98 percent of the world’s population, have signed on to the pact. The OPCW has already chalked up one success with regard to Syria: Assad has agreed to have the country sign on to the global chemical-weapons accord. It will be the 190th nation to do so.

Ake Sellstrom, the Swedish scientist who led the team that investigated the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus area, said the moral weight of the OPCW’s Nobel laurel could help pressure more holdout nations to join.

“It’s about influencing the states that are not yet in: North Korea, Iraq and Israel, among others,” Sellstrom told the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. “It feels great. It is a little-known organization that is getting a much-deserved prize.”

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