Sunday, September 7, 2003

Smoke signals

A decade after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration outlawed smoking in U.S. workplaces, the United Nations may go smoke-free. Or maybe not.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan sent around a memo that no smoking would be permitted as of Sept. 1, “for the purpose of eliminating the risks associated with second-hand smoke for all those working on U.N. premises at headquarters.”

But delegates accustomed to diplomatic immunity, tax-free shopping and flexible parking rules aren’t quietly accepting that they will no longer be able to light up wherever they sit down.

“Are you going to arrest me?” asked a cheery envoy after the smoking ban was called to his attention — apparently for the first time. “Well, don’t embarrass my wife or my country,” he said, in a plea for anonymity. He took a few more unhurried puffs and then stubbed out the butt in a coffee cup and left the double-height lounge area, where smoking had always been allowed.

The diplomat could be forgiven for not realizing that the secretary-general’s order is for real. Maybe.

Technically international territory, the U.N. headquarters has long been outside the reach of New York City building inspectors and federal laws. For years, signs in corridors suggested politely, “smoking discouraged,” and no one has removed the wall-mounted aluminum ashtrays.

But six months after New Yorkers were forbidden to smoke in bars and restaurants, the U.N. management appears serious about complying with recommendations from the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, and putting its foot down on smoldering tobacco.

A second notice, signed by Denis Beissel, head of the Office of Human Resources Management, said, “smoking on the premises also jeopardizes insurance coverage, since smoking constitutes a major fire hazard. The company that provides this insurance coverage has requested that the no-smoking rule be strictly adhered to.”

A smoking ban at the United Nations goes beyond mere public-health issues, of course, and enters the realm of political statement and human nature.

Many of those working in the headquarters building are not U.S. citizens, and some come from countries where cigarettes are something closer to a fashion accessory than a death wish. For years, the winked-at smoking policy was considered an attempt by puritanical Americans to keep chain smokers from a simple pleasure.

“We would hope that all would comply with the secretary-general’s announced new policy,” said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard, promising disciplinary action for staffers who break the rules. He added, “I’m not sure we have the right to discipline diplomats, but we count on their cooperation.”

Human-rights gap

The United Nations must quickly appoint a human rights chief to replace Sergio Vieira de Mello or risk undermining the influence of the office, says its acting head.

Bertrand Ramcharan, the acting U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said governments have less fear of criticism when it comes from an official who fills the post temporarily.

Mr. Ramcharan took over as acting chief in June, when Mr. Vieira de Mello was sent by Mr. Annan to Baghdad for a four-month assignment as the top U.N. envoy in Iraq. He was killed in the Aug. 19 truck bombing of the world body’s headquarters in Baghdad.

Mr. Ramcharan, who was Mr. Vieira de Mello’s deputy, said a permanent successor should be appointed as soon as possible.

“I don’t want to give the impression that I want to influence when or how the secretary-general deals with this,” he told the Associated Press in Geneva. “But to give an honest answer of principle, … a high commissioner endorsed by the General Assembly must be inherently stronger” than an interim official.

Mr. Ramcharan, a native of Guyana, refused to say whether he is interested in the job.

“I’m a career international civil servant, and one of the things that I’ve learned is that you don’t become a candidate for jobs,” he said.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at

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