x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Resolution calls for smoking ban on UN premises worldwide

The General Assembly passed a resolution last week banning the sale or smoking of tobacco in UN premises around the world.

NEW YORK // Adi Zekcher, a United Nations staffer, buys a packet of Marlboro Lights and heads downstairs to the last remaining New York City cafe in which espresso-sipping patrons can light up for a morning cigarette. The Vienna Cafe, home to tobacco-stained diplomats, in the basement of the UN headquarters, technically lies on international territory and remains unaffected by the city's five-year-old smoking ban.

But like the swirling plumes of blue Dunhill smoke, change is in the air. The General Assembly passed a resolution last week banning the sale or smoking of tobacco in the headquarters or other UN premises around the world. Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation's director general, praised the assembly's consensus decision, promising fewer UN "delegates, employees and visitors" will "sicken and die prematurely" from second-hand smoke.

Despite the successfully adopted resolution and Dr Chan's sage words, dozens of customers of the Vienna Cafe still puff away on cigarettes, pipes and cigars while munching croissants. Upstairs, the UN's branch of Hudson News, a newspaper kiosk, continues to sell about 40 packets of cigarettes daily to diplomats and employees. "They should never stop," said Mr Zekcher, who supports UN operations overseas. "This is the last building in New York where you can smoke - the final haven."

Another cappuccino-drinking smoker in the basement brasserie, who assists the UN mission to Afghanistan, also makes a case for smokers' rights on the riverside slice of "international territory". "You can't just introduce something like that and expect everyone in the world to accept it," he said on condition of anonymity. "A General Assembly resolution is hardly international law." Officials have long sought to abolish smoking in the iconic headquarters and other UN offices around the world - but efforts have been undermined by sketchy support and resistance from some delegations.

Although bans on smoking in public places are accepted in the bars and eateries of London, Paris and Rome, an individual's right to light up in many other cities remains unquestioned. In 2003, about six months after New York City imposed harsh anti-smoking measures in bars throughout the metropolis, Kofi Annan sent a bulletin banning smoking at UN headquarters. The former secretary general's warning was seen as advisory at best. Sergey Lavrov, Russia's UN ambassador at the time, took great delight in lighting up while addressing journalists in front of the Security Council chamber.

"The UN building is owned by all the member nations, while the secretary general is just a hired manager," Mr Lavrov was quoted as saying at the time. Mr Annan "can by all means tell his underlings what to do, but not members of diplomatic missions". For Nina Vitale, one UN veteran, three decades inside smoky premises have caused sinus infections and sore eyes, leading the information assistant to privately request workers in neighbouring offices to refrain from smoking at their desks.

"You're working with people from all over the world here," Ms Vitale said. "Sure, people in America know about the dangers of second-hand smoke, but people from Third World countries smoke a lot more and have a different attitude." For many, the problems UN officials have in implementing a smoking ban on their own premises is indicative of the difficulties the world body experiences in achieving consensus on any issue.

The chain-smoking diplomats, who fill the Vienna Cafe, highlight the oft-cited fatal flaw of the UN enterprise - that the world body is only as powerful as the momentum delivered by its members. A routinely ignored smoking ban is just a small example of more substantial UN shortcomings, such as the failure to impose new sanctions on Zimbabwe, respond to Russia's invasion of Georgia or tackle Omar al Bashir, the president of Sudan, critics say.

"If you don't respect the orders or instructions that are being given out, then you are going to continue doing what you want," Ms Vitale said. "What are the actual ramifications for people who continue to smoke in the building? Are they going to be barred? Are they going to be fined? Will they lose their jobs? No." Following the adoption of the resolution, Ban Ki-moon, the current secretary general, is now responsible for implementing the edict and reporting back on its success or failure next year.

With many issues addressed in midtown Manhattan, the buck is often passed along the UN merry-go-round, from Mr Ban's secretariat to the Security Council or all 192 member states of the General Assembly. Michelle Montas, Mr Ban's spokesman, said the secretary general had yet to devise a strategy to encourage the world's nicotine-hungry diplomats to relinquish their smoking rights. "There is a smoking ban - the problem is enforcing it," Ms Montas said. As in so many other arenas, she said, the secretary general's hands were tied. "We should try to find out why it is not reinforced by members of the different delegations? I think the question should go to them."

jreinl@thenational.ae