- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

Where there’s smoke

There’s fire.

Diplomats have begun a campaign to undermine efforts to make the U.N. headquarters a smoke-free environment.

At a recent procedural meeting of the General Assembly’s management committee — usually dull enough to nap through — diplomats invoked everything from human rights to a terrorist threat to roll back the month-old smoking ban.

The problem, according to several diplomats, is that U.N. security guards have been instructed to enforce the ban, by keeping watch and taking names.

“My delegation demands to know what will happen to this list of names, and how will it be used?” said Ambassador Nazareth Incera, the Costa Rican envoy to the Fifth Committee, which handles management and budget issues. “We would like a written answer from the Secretariat.”

With customary U.N. logic, Mrs. Incera and Russian envoy Vladimir Iosifov told the committee that the problem is not the smoking ban itself, but the efforts by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to enforce it.

Mr. Iosifov noted that the General Assembly had not pronounced a smoking ban, and therefore none should exist. He referred to a 1983 General Assembly resolution that “prohibits” smoking in small conference rooms and “discourages” smoking in larger rooms.

“Delegates are strongly encouraged to refrain from smoking to avoid exposing nonsmokers to passive smoke,” he added helpfully.

While delegates discussed the smoking crisis downstairs, their presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers were taking turns at the General Assembly podium to discuss other issues of global importance: the eradication of poverty, illiteracy and HIV/AIDS, the need to rebuild Iraq and other war-ravaged nations, and the growing chasm between industrial and developing nations.

It was the first General Assembly debate at which, in theory, world leaders were not allowed to duck out for a quick smoke.

Last month Mr. Annan sent a circular outlawing smoking inside the U.N. headquarters building. That notice came roughly six months after New York City imposed harsh antismoking measures in bars throughout the metropolis and a decade after the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration outlawed smoking in offices and other public spaces.

At the United Nations, it is clear that the smoking ban is seen as advisory at best.

One corner of the basement-level Vienna coffee shop frequently has the scent of Dunhill about it. And a few stairwell landings are starting to resemble a bus stop owing to cigarette butts scattered around. Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Sergey Lavrov, — a diplomatic “Marlboro Man,” except that he smokes Parliaments — delights in lighting up in front of the reporters and cameras camped outside the Security Council.

“A salute to courage,” said an Egyptian diplomat to Mrs. Incera as he filed out of the meeting. “I do not smoke,” he assured a reporter, “but she is very brave.”

Mrs. Incera, it appears, has plenty of support in Costa Rica’s attempts to repeal the no-smoking policy. “The Secretariat has tried to enforce this ban using security staff, which are already overworked by the threats we face today,” Mrs. Incera said.

“My ambassador” — Bernd Niehaus, Costa Rica’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who she said does not smoke — “is concerned,” Mrs. Incera said.

Back in school again

More than 1 million girls in Afghanistan have entered schools since the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime — which had forbidden the education of girls — according to a UNICEF survey issued last week.

“To think that a million girls have returned to school, and that the parents of a million girls have encouraged them to do so, is stunning,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said as she was leaving for a three-day visit to the country. “It’s an incredible feat in a country plagued by hunger, poverty, poor health, and continuing instability.”

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at UNear@aol.com.

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