18 December 2017

Smoke, mirrors and hypocrisy at the WHO

By Chad Nagle

In 1957, when ex-Marxist historian Karl August Wittfogel published his famous treatise, Oriental Despotism, he could have been describing 21st-century Turkmenistan. Near-total dependence on irrigation for agriculture in this ex-Soviet Central Asian country brings to mind the historian’s “hydraulic-bureaucratic state”, where a centralised managerial apparatus “prevents the non-governmental forces of society from crystallising into independent bodies strong enough to counterbalance and control the political machine”.

It’s an austere socio-economic model, but let’s not forget Turkmenistan is not “Western”. In fact, there’s a lack of a sustained, organised political opposition in any of the quiet Central Asian republics. What goes on behind Turkmenistan’s closed doors is particularly shady, but it does, however, appear to have the blessing of various international organisations who seem to turn a blind eye to the worst transgressions of that political machine.

We do know, for example, that in early 2016, Turkmenistan outlawed all sales of tobacco to applause from various international organisations. The country’s supreme leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, reaped high praise from UN officials for his anti-smoking Puritanism. The leaders of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) celebrated his crackdown on cigarettes and chewing tobacco and challenged the Turkmen despot to do even more in a country where official reports put the per capita incidence of smoking at about eight per cent. So he did.

The trained dentist, Berdymukhamedov (aka “Akadag” or “Protector”) — whose pearly-white teeth and winning smile endow him with the aura of the proudly smoke-free — stamped smoking out altogether.

The “Protector”, as a result, is hailed as a reforming hero by the WHO and FCTC, who have both, incidentally, sampled his financial largesse, most visibly in the form of lavish summits in Turkmenistan and, most recently, Germany. The regime also funds the WHO’s Regional Program for Tobacco Control.

But we also know that Western human rights activists are falling over themselves to decry Turkmenistan’s low level of basic freedoms. Is this a misguided indictment of a benevolent dictator, or is there no smoke without fire?

A little history. In the Soviet Era, despite having the 6th largest reserves of natural gas in the world, Turkmenistan had perhaps the lowest standard of living in the entire USSR. Today, little has changed. And in the midst of the Turkmenistan dustbowl, Berdymukhamedov lives in splendour, the ostentatious beneficiary of his country’s natural resource wealth. He’s an eccentric autocrat who prides himself on his skill as a DJ, he’s treated auditoria full of post-Soviet nomenklatura and their families to his concerts. He also sings, plays the guitar, races cars and rides horses with varying degrees of skill.

It is impossible for outsiders to gauge the extent of the despot’s popularity, or even how much the small socio-political elite genuinely appreciates his style because the “Press Freedom Index” of Reporters Without Borders describes the country as an “information black hole”. Few objective news reports go in or out.

But we do know that Berdymukhamedov and his WHO/FCTC fans are opposed by another UN affiliate, the International Labour Organization. Long a campaigner for fair working conditions around the world, the ILO is the last UN body to maintain formal ties with the tobacco industry. And it has severe concerns about child labour in Turkmenistan. Meanwhile, the WHO and the ILO are in conflict in part because of the latter’s public-private partnership with a tobacco concern – Japan Tobacco International (JTI).

However, in its drive to end forced labour, the ILO-JTI venture has notched tangible successes in the developing world, such as the freeing of tens of thousands of child labourers in sub-Saharan Africa and contributing millions of dollars to support such programs. So while the WHO and FCTC team up with the dictator of Turkmenistan to stamp out smoking, the ILO pushes to improve working conditions with help from big tobacco. Who is on the side of the angels?

We know that Turkmenistan is one of the world’s main offenders in the area of slave labour in the cotton fields — including the forced labour of children — because over the last few years, the ILO, journalists and human rights activists have risked lives and reputations to report it.

Such reports tend to be potentially hazardous to the reporters’ health. Late last year, a Turkmen reporter was arrested for filing one. He confessed to fraud under torture, but his article—complete with photographs—had already made it onto the internet. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

The outright smoking ban is a similar sledgehammer, with consequences we’ve seen elsewhere. Those of us old enough to remember smoking areas in cinemas, smoking sections on planes, smoking carriages on trains, have felt the official campaign to drive smoking out of the public square as a steady march, over decades, without widespread popular rebellion. More and more people have gone outside to smoke without swearing at anyone. It’s a fact of life in the Western world today: smokers bow to the tyranny of the majority.

But in Turkmenistan, it’s a tyranny of one, and that is where the WHO and FCTC lose their patina of righteousness. In heavy-smoking Turkey, taxes on tobacco imposed by the outwardly pious Islamist government are arguably a bigger deterrent than the very strict, widely circumvented anti-smoking laws (one British acquaintance reminisced to me that the first image that confronted him when he arrived in Turkey years ago was two policemen smoking under a no-smoking sign).

If authoritarian upstart Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ever wants to test how much his country is really under his thumb, perhaps he should follow the example of his Turkmen counterpart.

It is a failing of dictators that they don’t realise that the prohibition of vices simply drives them underground. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the pious authorities banned the sale, purchase and consumption of alcohol nationwide decades ago, only to create a society awash in illicit booze. Iran now has its own version of the speakeasies of 1920s America. One Iranian I met on a ferry in Istanbul years ago urged me to visit him at his home on the Caspian Sea, where (he assured me) his bar was stocked with any liquor I fancied. As the Olde English folk song “John Barleycorn” chides, outlawing alcohol simply doesn’t work. Tobacco isn’t that different.

That’s why the WHO would do better to pay more attention the police brutality, child labour and human trafficking in Turkmenistan – rather than whether or not Turkmen workers take occasional cigarette breaks on the job or commuters light up on the way home.

There is no substitute for an educated population when it comes to tobacco, and bans by despotic decree will only create a flourishing black market and a proliferation of organised crime. Whatever the theoretical benefits of autocracy promoting healthy lifestyles, encouraging Oriental despotism as an effective model for stamping out cigarettes is letting the Devil in the front door. It should stop.

Chad Nagle is a freelance writer and lawyer