For Ban Ki-moon, there’s a first time for everything

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters this week that a recent U.N. declaration to slash global poverty by 50 percent by 2015 enjoyed “unprecedented” international support. It’s true that the 31-page anti-poverty pact — calling on countries to recommit themselves to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals — was supported by all of the U.N.’s ...

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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters this week that a recent U.N. declaration to slash global poverty by 50 percent by 2015 enjoyed "unprecedented" international support.

It's true that the 31-page anti-poverty pact -- calling on countries to recommit themselves to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals -- was supported by all of the U.N.'s 192 members. But that's hardly unprecedented. Virtually every major agreement in the U.N. General Assembly is adopted by consensus, meaning that each of the U.N.'s 192 members have to sign on.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Reuters this week that a recent U.N. declaration to slash global poverty by 50 percent by 2015 enjoyed “unprecedented” international support.

It’s true that the 31-page anti-poverty pact — calling on countries to recommit themselves to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals — was supported by all of the U.N.’s 192 members. But that’s hardly unprecedented. Virtually every major agreement in the U.N. General Assembly is adopted by consensus, meaning that each of the U.N.’s 192 members have to sign on.

What’s really unprecedented, it seems, is the world’s top diplomat’s increasing reliance on the word “unprecedented” to underscore his achievements and challenges.

Surveying the devastation in Pakistan last month Ban said “the unprecedented floods demand unprecedented assistance.” Fine, in this case, Ban’s claim had merit. The monsoon waters coursing through Pakistan’s heartland wreaked untold destruction. When the final tally is taken, it may well turn out to be the most devastating flood in Pakistan’s modern history.

But can his forays into mediation between Israel and Turkey be considered equally extraordinary? Or his efforts to push nuclear disarmament, or to advance the cause of women?

Ban has made a habit of portraying his achievements in exceptional terms at a time when his beleaguered leadership is coming under attack from other U.N. officials. Last month, Ban trumpeted as “unprecedented” a pact he secured between Israel and Turkey to set up a panel to review Israel’s May 31 commando raid on a Turkish flotilla, in which nine aid activists were killed. Few observers expected Ban to convince Israel to submit to a U.N. review of its troops’ conduct. But that, too, was not actually unprecedented. The U.N. had previously secured Israeli cooperation in conducting examinations of Israel’s military conduct, including an inquiry into 2008 Israeli strikes on U.N. facilities in Gaza and a 1999 probe into an attack on the U.N. peacekeeping base in Qana, southern Lebanon.

In a press conference last month, Ban used “unprecedented” five times to characterize events from the Middle East to East Asia. In response to a single question about his personal role in promoting nuclear disarmament, Ban used some variation of the word — “landmark,” “historic,” and “first time” — 11 times. If you throw in a slightly less exclusive phrase like “one of the most,” it brings the figure up to 13.

“I was the first U.N. secretary general after 65 years to attend that ceremony,” Ban told reporters, following a visit to Hiroshima for a memorial on the anniversary of the dropping of the U.S. nuclear bomb. “It was one of my most profoundly moving experience[s] personally and as well as secretary general.”

Ban added that his decision to participate in the nuclear commemoration set off an unprecedented wave of appearances at the event by other foreign dignitaries, encouraging even “nuclear weapons states to participate, again for the first time.”

“U.S. ambassador to Tokyo, Ambassador [John V.] Roos, participated for the first time as the U.S representative” at the Hiroshima commemoration, Ban said after the event. “There were 74 countries who were represented at the ambassadorial level. That was again for the first time, again, unprecedented.”

Ban is not taking all the credit for himself. In the same press conference, Ban lauded President Barack Obama for bringing the issue of nuclear disarmament to the forefront of the international agenda. “President Obama has made [a] landmark, historic speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague, April, last year, and he convened again, [an] unprecedented historic Security Council summit meeting.”

That’s not all. “There was [the] Washington nuclear security summit meeting,. For the first time they agreed to have a second summit meeting to continue their discussions, in Seoul, Korea” in 2012. “That is again very historic,” Ban noted.

All this historic activity has inspired Ban to organize a summit of world leaders in New York next week September 24, to promote efforts to ban the production of weapons grade fuel. “We have to seize this moment…That’s what I’m trying to do. But this Sept 24 high-level meeting is again…” Yes, you guessed it, “unprecedented.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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