A United Nations body, tasked with developing a treaty to tackle the illicit trade in tobacco products, has breached its own transparency rules by closing the public gallery and deciding to negotiate behind closed doors.
The International Negotiating Body (INB), made up of 168 participating governments, yesterday began a week of negotiations in Geneva to finalise a treaty on combatting cigarette smuggling. This legally binding agreement will demand stronger international co-ordination and tougher enforcement in the fight against organised crime.
Despite the implications for a wide range of public stakeholders, including the news media, the Chair of the INB has taken the extreme, and far from unanimous, decision to exclude the public from the final stage of the discussions.
Pat Heneghan, Head of Anti-Illicit Trade at British American Tobacco, said: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision to exclude the public from the most crucial stage of negotiations on this treaty – especially in light of the strong opposition voiced by representatives from several of the governments involved.
“This move seems to go against the very principles of transparency and democracy that form the foundations of the United Nations system and we are worried about the dangerous precedent this may set for future intergovernmental processes.
“From the very start, we have publicly supported the development of the strongest and most far-reaching Protocol possible – underlining our commitment to work alongside governments worldwide to clamp down on the criminals smuggling up to 660 billion cigarettes a year.
“We firmly believe that the only way to stop these smugglers, counterfeiters and tax evaders – who have links to weapons, drugs, people trafficking and organised crime – is for regulators, law enforcement authorities and the tobacco industry to work together.
“Without this co-ordination, the task is near impossible. So for us to be excluded from observing the decisions that will ultimately be implemented by the industry seems counterproductive.”
The public has a fundamental right to observe these negotiations – something which has always happened in the past. British American Tobacco delegates have always been transparent at all times by clearly stating on entry forms where they are from and always remaining within the limits of the public gallery.
Pat Heneghan added: “We appreciate that the text of the treaty is for governments to negotiate, and that’s the reason why we don’t seek to directly participate or be involved.
“But it has always been good international practice in most of these multinational forums to allow members of the public and interested parties to observe proceedings and that’s what really concerns us about this irrational decision.”