The UN has failed to protect Syrians from war and hunger. Now it’s telling them to stop smoking

Your home may be in flames, your family enslaved, your torturers itching to pull out your fingernails – but above all you've got to ignore the ciggy packet in your pocket

Robert Fisk
Monday 13 June 2016 12:57 BST
Syrians gathering at the scene of a double bomb attack outside the Sayyida Zeinab shrine
Syrians gathering at the scene of a double bomb attack outside the Sayyida Zeinab shrine

Bizarre, weird, unprecedented. It's rarely you can call the UN all three. But I did get the April Fool's Day feeling when I read about the World Health Organisation's latest warning to Syrians: they must stop smoking. Not just cigarettes but even the nargileh, the shisha pipe, upon which generations of Arabs have puffed away in war and peace.

But now – and it is June, not 1 April – the poor and desperate Syrian people have been told by the UN health agency that they really must take better care of their lungs.

Has the UN no sense of shame? I don't blame Elizabeth Hoff, WHO's representative for Syria, for this preposterous report. There was a time, and will be again in a future peace, for such serious warnings to be issued.

But somewhere within the UN's clanking pistons and steam valves, her desire to save the Syrian masses from lung cancer – forget the barrel bombers, Russian missiles, car bombs, torturers and throat-cutters to which they fall victim in their tens of thousands – got spewed out of the machinery on the East River at the most inappropriate moment in history, and the world was presented with the UN at its cancerous best.

Throughout the Second World War, the League of Nations, predecessor of the UN which was constructed after the 1914-18 war to end all such global conflicts, continued to exist, powerless and ignored, in Geneva. But at least it did not admonish the belligerents to drive more carefully or to ensure their children did not eat fattening sweets or jay-walk. Or to stop smoking.

For if you really fear the dangers of lung cancer are so important (and they clearly are), surely a sense of decorum should come into play when men, women and children are being eviscerated?

But no. The old UN donkey has trotted out its report with hopeless inappropriateness, warning that tobacco and water pipes endanger the lives of Syrian smokers and those around them "notwithstanding the current crisis [sic] in the country".

Residents of Syria’s Azaz caught in the crossfire

The nargileh, Syrians are told – the hookah or hubble-bubble pipe has been around since the Mogul empire in the 16th century – is 20 times as bad for their health as cigarette smoking. And the Syrian bureaucracy should take care to ensure that cigarettes are plain-packaged to reduce their "attractiveness and glamour".

I can see the problem. While fleeing from air strikes, mass graves and ethnic cleansing, Syrians have just got to resist the temptation of a quick gasper to calm their nerves. Your home may be in flames, your family enslaved, your torturers itching to pull out your fingernails – but above all you've got to ignore the pretty ciggy packet in your pocket.

Try not to join the other 280,000 victims of the Syrian war – but above all ignore the temptations of those who urge you to puff away on “menthol fresh” cigarettes.

In fact, the Syrian government did, before the war, start some anti-tobacco campaigns. There are government offices in Damascus where, unbelievably, civil servants are not allowed to smoke, even today. The government's health minister, Ahmad Khlefawy, has actually said that the war is no excuse for smoking tobacco.

But far more assiduous in supporting the WHO report will surely be the lads from Isis, who are currently the most vigorous anti-smoking campaigners in the history of the world. Caught with a fag in your mouth in Mosul or Raqqa, or even a packet of cigarettes in your pocket, and you'll be slapped with a $20 (£14) fine or, more likely, given 20 lashes with steel wire or the casing of a car tyre.

Of course, the timing of the WHO report is preposterous, ludicrous, crazed. The UN is still unable to supply food aid to thousands of Syrians trapped in village and city sieges by rebel and government forces. It cannot even open humanitarian corridors across Syria to save the innocent and the sick.

Its negotiators have signally failed to create a lasting ceasefire. They've tried. I don't blame them.

But what are Syrians supposed to make of Hoff's smoking report right now? For when, in the middle of this bloodbath, Isis and the UN are on the same track, something has gone terribly wrong.

Desperate to survive their terrible war, there must be many Syrians who regard the UN report – if they even hear about it – as an insult to their lives.

The fact that this did not even occur to the UN itself is a measure of its profound dysfunction.

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