Depending on the day, the United Nations can go from seeming like a useless drain on the world’s taxpayers to an evil bureaucratic menace to national sovereignty. Holed up on the East River in Manhattan, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the UN has a less than firm grasp on how the world actually works. Earlier this month, though, an official at the UN’s World Health Organization made clear just how jaw-droppingly out of touch the whole enterprise really is.
On June, 1, Elizabeth Hoff (the World Health Organization’s Syria representative) decided that it was high time people in Syria got serious about quitting smoking. “Notwithstanding the current crisis,” according to a statement, Hoff “has stressed the urgency for controlling tobacco and shisha consumption among the population – especially among youths, women and teenage school children.” According to the WHO, vulnerable Syrians are in danger because they think smoking out of a shisha (also called a hookah) is less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. After five years of civil war that have leveled their homes and put a solid third of their country under the control of ISIS, the people of Syria will surely take comfort in the fact that a Norwegian in New York is on the lookout for their health. While they could very well be killed by the Assad’s regimes barrel bombs or jihadists at any given moment, the WHO is fighting to make sure that they will at least have healthy lungs as everything else around them falls apart.
As if to put a cherry on top of its debacle, the WHO’s statement doubled down by urging Syrian government officials to complement their work murdering civilians by discouraging the ones still living from smoking. One of Bashar al-Assad’s ministers embraced the statement, going so far as to say the war was no excuse for lighting up. Then again, the most logical partner for an anti-smoking campaign in Syria would actually be ISIS: for those unlucky enough to find themselves living in ISIS-held territory, the penalties for smoking range from whippings to beheadings.
Follow the money
As is usually the case with this kind of Ivory Tower institution, the WHO gets more funding from America than from anywhere else. For just this year, the UN asked the U.S. government to cough up almost $57 million. By comparison, the Chinese were only asked for $12 million and the Saudis just $2 million. Even with all of those U.S. taxpayer dollars, the WHO has to constantly pass around the hat to beg for cash. The money it gets from UN member states is so inadequate that it has to rely on private donors to perform basic functions. Liberal philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates make up part of the difference, to the extent that the organization draws nearly a quarter of its entire budget from American tax dollars or donations. When serious emergences like Ebola or the Zika virus pop up, the WHO isn’t actually capable of raising the money it needs to address them. Instead, it has to shuffle millions between its different funds and send out the WHO’s Director-General to do the best job she can fundraising for the rest.
In deciding how to spend the dollars it does manages to scrounge together, the WHO tends to indulge its obsession with tobacco. Back in 2012, the same people who bungled the Ebola epidemic put through the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, a treaty that is supposed to fight cigarette smuggling by making its signatories adhere to various measures of tobacco control and sales. The only problem is that the treaty only enters into force when 40 countries have ratified it. Since the it was adopted in November of 2012, the Protocol only has 17 signed and sealed backers. The U.S. isn’t one of them.
However, In Europe, that hasn’t stopped the European Union’s Parliament from embracing it with open arms. A major part of the WHO’s approach to fighting tobacco use is to shut the industry out of the process entirely (by invoking article 5.3 of the FCTC, a nifty convention meant to tackle tobacco consumption). The EU Parliament brought that up when it voted to recommended ending phasing out the Union’s longstanding deals with one of the major tobacco companies on fighting cigarette smuggling.
That stance might be morally gratifying, but applying it would also rob the officials policing both the legal and the illegal tobacco trades of some of the most valuable tools beleaguered law enforcement has at its disposal. Under the terms of a 2004 deal, Philip Morris has been paying the EU $1.25 billion (in installments) to pay for anti-smuggling operations. Unsurprisingly, Europe’s anti-fraud officials are fighting from behind the scenes to keep the deal in place, warning that abandoning it would result in the Union having no anti-smuggling framework in place for multiple years. Not to mention the fact that it would let the industry, which as of now has to provide regulators with access to its internal information, off the hook.
Undermining the fight against cigarette smuggling can have serious consequences for national security, especially considering all of the problems those countries already have with their open borders and the ease with which ISIS and other terror groups seem to move and operate. Many of the world’s largest terrorist groups use cigarette trafficking as a revenue source, taking advantage of the huge price differences between neighboring jurisdictions (European countries just as much as U.S. states) to generate cash with high profit margins and relatively low risk if caught.
In the aftermath of the jihadist attacks in Paris last November, attention focused on the petty crime and delinquency that provide a training ground for future generations of terrorists and help them fund their plans for mass murder. That low-level peddling can provide all the funding necessary to put together a devastating lone wolf or small group attack. Then again, jihadi violence isn’t the WHO’s concern. As they told the Syrians, preventing lung cancer takes precedence over surviving bombs and suicide attacks.