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Diplomat to receive honorary doctorate

29 September 2005

Distinguished diplomat to receive honorary doctorate

A New Zealand diplomat who helped pioneer a new way for small Pacific nations to move from colonies to self-governing and independent states is to be honoured by Victoria University of Wellington.

Frank Corner, 85, will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University at its December graduation ceremonies.

In the 1950s and 60s, with the makeup of the United Nations radically changing with the arrival of newly independent countries in Africa and Asia, New Zealand was pushed to outline the future of its Pacific territories: Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue and the Tokelau Islands. New Zealand’s plans for Western Samoa were for it to become a “protected state”, similar to the relationship between Tonga and Britain.

Over objections from the then Department of Island Territories and the concerns of Britain, Australia and the United States, Mr Corner, as Deputy Secretary of External Affairs, argued that Western Samoa should be offered unqualified independence.

This unqualified independence was accepted by the Samoan people and was backed up by a Treaty of Friendship between Western Samoa and New Zealand. The UN, which had been kept informed at every stage of the process, approved the result and Western Samoa became an independent nation on 1 January 1962 but decided not to exercise its right to membership of the UN. (Western Samoa changed its name to Samoa in 1997.)

This innovative conceptual framework for a very small colony to become a self-governing state freely associated with another larger country was further developed for New Zealand’s other colonies into “free association” under which a small state may decide to work in association with the parent country, not itself exercising all aspects of its sovereignty but retaining the right to do so.

This free association arrangement was worked out and approved by the UN in the cases of the Cook Islands in 1965, Niue in 1974 and is an option now before the people of Tokelau. While Britain and the US privately objected to this approach at the time, they were later to use it for their own island territories in the Caribbean and Micronesia.

The genesis of Mr Corner’s thinking about decolonisation and the future of small island territories began at Victoria University where he graduated with a Master of Arts with First Class Honours in 1942, having studied history under Professors John Cawte Beaglehole and Fred Wood.

Both professors had lectured on how the British Empire had been transformed from an empire of colonies to a group of independent countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and India that retained strong, but varied links with Britain as part of the Commonwealth. He went on to apply that thinking to New Zealand’s relationship with its colonies.

Mr Corner joined the Department of External Affairs in 1943, and went on to serve as First Secretary at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington DC (1948-51) and Senior Counsellor at the New Zealand High Commission in London (1952-58) before returning to Wellington to be Deputy Secretary of External Affairs (1958-62).

He was then appointed as New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1962-67). His time in New York also saw him represent New Zealand on the UN Trusteeship Council, which he chaired for two years, and served one year as New Zealand’s representative on the UN Security Council.

From New York, he returned to Washington where he became New Zealand’s Ambassador to the US (1967-72) before returning home to be the Permanent Head of the Prime Minister’s Department (1973-75) and Secretary of Foreign Affairs (1973-80) and Administrator for Tokelau (1976-85).

During this period, he worked closely with then Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Norman Kirk, to open diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, develop economic and other relations in East Asia, build relationships across Europe when Britain joined the European Economic Community, and to tackle France about its atmospheric nuclear testing.

His skills as a public servant were further tested when the Rt Hon Sir Robert Muldoon’s National Government was elected in 1975 and took a different tack in international relations. On retiring in 1980, he was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.

Mr Corner also served on the Victoria University Council (1981-87) and as chairman of the Council’s building committee that saw the Murphy Building, the Music School, the cover over the Quad, and the Kelburn Parade overbridge completed, before advancing blindness caused his retirement. A strong supporter of the arts, he was Patron of the Association of New Zealand Arts Societies (1973-88) and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Vice-Chancellor, Professor Pat Walsh, said Mr Corner is a man of great intellectual ability whose career epitomises the values Victoria seeks to instil in all its graduates.

“Through creative and critical thinking and by showing leadership by communicating his innovative ideas, he made an extraordinary contribution to New Zealand’s public service and played a key role in securing an enviable reputation for New Zealand’s diplomatic service in the corridors of international diplomacy.

“On the international stage, and in the face of strong anti-colonial sentiment at the United Nations and doubts and questions at home and abroad, he helped New Zealand secure a new status for small territories that not only recognised the right to self-determination but also their future security.”

Professor Walsh said Mr Corner had also published several lengthy articles and book chapters that have made significant contributions to knowledge of New Zealand’s foreign policy.


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