Lighting one up in Turtle Bay
In the old days, before the U.N. underwent a multibillion-dollar renovation, there was a sign in the U.N.’s basement Vienna Café that summed up the international organization’s attitude towards the mass killer that is tobacco. "Smoking discouraged," it stated lamely, a message blithely ignored by the espresso-sipping international diplomats and civil servants filling the room ...
In the old days, before the U.N. underwent a multibillion-dollar renovation, there was a sign in the U.N.'s basement Vienna Café that summed up the international organization's attitude towards the mass killer that is tobacco.
In the old days, before the U.N. underwent a multibillion-dollar renovation, there was a sign in the U.N.’s basement Vienna Café that summed up the international organization’s attitude towards the mass killer that is tobacco.
"Smoking discouraged," it stated lamely, a message blithely ignored by the espresso-sipping international diplomats and civil servants filling the room with smoke.
While the World Health Organization was urging governments around the world to curtail the deadly habit, world leaders and their envoys at U.N. headquarters were lighting up.
Secretary General Kofi Annan sought to enforce a dictate ordering "no smoking shall be permitted in any of the U.N. premises at headquarters" governments. Delegates shrugged.
Sergei Lavrov, then Russia’s U.N. ambassador, puffed defiantly as he exited the Security Council en route to the U.N. bar, where he would order up a glass of scotch. Annan, he reportedly complained, "doesn’t own this building." For lesser international civil servants there was the U.N.’s fire escape, which was crowded with smokers and littered with stomped cigarette butts.
There may have been another reason why the Russian diplomat got so snippy with the former U.N. chief. Not many people know it, but Annan was a closet smoker himself, and a violator of his own edicts on smoking, according to a former aide.
"He would sometimes smoke in his conference room; you could smell it" said the official. "It wasn’t like Kofi Annan was going to go outside to have a cigarette."
Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, however, is not a smoker and the secretary general’s executive office has become a truly smoke-free zone, according to U.N. officials. Ban’s chain-smoking political advisors — including Nicholas "Fink" Haysom, a South African national who once served as Nelson Mandela‘s lawyer — were forced to descend 38 floors from the U.N.’s headquarters building and leave the premises to have their smoke.
But as the wider U.N. staff begin returning to a renovated headquarters building, administrators are trying to nip the old habit in the bud.
In an internal memo — titled "Smoking in U.N. Occupied Buildings" — David Bongi, the U.N. chief of safety and security, scolded U.N. staffers for bringing their bad habits back into the gleaming new headquarters building, in clear violation of a 2008 General Assembly Resolution calling for "smoke-free United Nations premises."
"It is clearly evident that some staff members within the Secretariat Building have not been adhering to the no-smoking policy thus causing false fire alarms to activate in addition to increasing the risk of fire," he wrote. "This is evidenced by the discovery of cigarette butts in the stairwells after the activation of the buildings fire alarm systems."
"The activation of the fire alarms has very serious implications," he said. "The new fire alarm systems throughout the secretariat are very sensitive in order to give the most immediate warning for the threat of a fire. The activation of the fire alarm will initiate an evacuation and a response from U.N. Security as well as FDNY [the Fire Department of New York] potentially creating a hazard for staff members as well as responders."
So, where does that leave the U.N.’s staffers that need a midday smoke?
That’s no longer a problem for Fink; he’s been transferred to Afghanistan, where he is serving as Ban’s deputy special representative.
Hmm, could it have been the smoking?
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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