15 October 2004

By Ashraf Kemal

The Secretary-General's decision to declare the UNHQ building smoke-free as of the beginning of September 2003 has satisfied many, irked few, and brought to the surface a problem that nobody likes to talk about. The problem is how to enforce the ban. Some representatives of Member States feel that the decision infringes on their soveignty. Some staff members (including those who were former diplomats: quite a few of us were) feel unfairly singled out by security officers who ask them to put out their cigarettes, while ignoring diplomats who are doing the same.

During the general debate, some diplomats told security officers that the ban does not apply to them. Hence, the question of a separate ruling arises. However, instead of concentrating on a way to apply the ban, the matter has turned into a turf war. The war is about who makes the decisions in the building. With large companies, that question never arises; the CEO makes the decision and the staff members implement it. No members of the board are invited to take part in that purely administrative decision and the question of who foots the bill is irrelevant. At the UN, things are a bit different. With 191 Member States present in the building from dawn to dusk, or thereabouts, the physical environment of the building becomes everybody's business.

But it should not be about turf. Nobody, diplomat or staff member, can smoke on a plane, in a hospital, a restaurant (in New York City), a taxi or a bus (I could go on but I think the point has been made). This is about everybody's health and wellness. For those who were not here several years ago, a similar albeit not as sweeping, ban was announced by the then ASG for OHRM. The Fifth Committee held an emergency meeting and told Mr. Halliday to take down the no smoking signs at the Viennese Cafe. So, what do we do?

For one thing, the ban either has to be modified: designate one or two glass enclosures to allow both diplomats and staff who wish to continue having the pleasure (and it is a pleasure, no matter how harmful it is) to be able to do so; or, if the ban is irreversible, it must be applied uniformly to one and all. I would like to see how many security officers would tell an ambassador to put out his cigar.

And let's face it; it is only New York City that has such a ban. There is the rest of the world. The logic of who pays the piper calls the tune does not apply here. For the payer cannot kill the piper as part of the payment (collateral damage or friendly fire). And smoking, though pleasurable, does kill. And this brings us to the other alternative: how to apply the ban to all. (The writer prefers the diplomatic solution, since we are in THE house of diplomacy and compromise; two designated areas and the bar; you just can't enjoy a scotch without a Partagas D 4 or a Cohiba for the rest of us who cannot secure a Partagas).

Now, let's look at the other alternative. Some ardent (preferably fanatical), non-smoking staff members can bring a case before the Joint Appeals Board complaining of the hazards of second-hand smoke. Hopefully, and with the help of the administration, the case will proceed swiftly to the Administrative Tribunal. A hefty monetary award by the Tribunal will prompt the Secretary-General to ask Member States to establish a special fund to compensate affected staff members (all non-smokers and some who will quit to share the bounty), who will bring other cases before the Tribunal. If you followed the monetary awards against tobacco companies in the United States, you can reasonably anticipate a fund that will surpass the UN budget several fold. That should draw the attention of smokers: diplomats and the rest.