Articles - November 2019


Frodo's Land Confronts Terrorist Attacks and Its Past.
A Conversation with New Zealand Ambassador Rosemary Banks
Roland Flamini

New Zealand, the Southern Pacific country that isn’t Australia, has been in the news lately. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, gave birth to a daughter shortly after taking office, which she had done at the unprecedented age of 37. Then in March, a lone gunman killed 51 people and injured dozens in an attack on two mosques in Christchurch. Prime Minister Ardern earned international praise with her swift response. She announced the immediate ban of most semi-automatic weapons, then launched a gun buyback, and more recently instituted a compulsory weapons register. Together with French President Emmanuel Macron, she also launched the Christchurch Call to Action initiative, in which governments and tech giants like Facebook agreed to a set of collective actions aimed at eliminating terrorist and violent content online.

In September, Ardern met President Trump for the first time on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, and the New Zealand media said Trump had shown interest in learning about the gun buyback. Bi-lateral relations are historically close, with both countries belonging to Five Eyes an intelligence sharing arrangement involving the U.S., U.K. Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Ambassador to Washington, Rosemary Banks, told Diplomatic Connections in an interview that the whole of Christchurch had been shaken by the mosque attacks because the Muslim minority was long established in the city’s community, and also because the coastal city of 400,000 inhabitants on New Zealand’s South Island was still recovering from devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

Banks is the first woman ambassador to Washington from New Zealand. She was called from retirement after a long foreign service career to run her country’s mission in the nation’s capital. In retirement, she held the post of negotiator for the Treaty of Waitingi Commission which addresses Maori grievances and awards compensation in cash and land restitution. The Waitingi Commission is the New Zealand government’s effort to address and, when possible, correct some of the questionable actions of the country’s colonial past.

Members of the Maori tribes are well established in the country’s institutions. Maori is an official language alongside English. Nearly a quarter of the parliament is currently composed of Maori MPs. But some wounds are taking longer to heal than others, and the 250th anniversary celebration of the British arrival in 1769 at the group of lush green islands is getting mixed reactions. A number of ships, including a replica of HMS Endeavour, the famous Captain James Cook’s frigate, are scheduled to circumnavigate New Zealand to commemorate what the government calls “the arrival of European settlers;” to some Maori activists, it was the start of the colonial period. Recently, a statue of Captain Cook was removed from public view after it had been repeatedly defaced and daubed with graffiti.

On the brighter side, as the ambassador recalled, New Zealand is now forever linked with J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies, both of which were filmed on location on the South Island, and the Hobbit film set is a major tourist attraction. Scientists recently named an insect discovered in New Zealand after Frodo Baggins, the famous Hobbit character. (photos on pages 30 and 31)
Ambassador Banks was interviewed at the embassy residence, adjoining the chancery. She began by explaining her work as a member of the Treaty of Waitangi Commission.

Diplomatic Connections:  Your diplomatic postings as ambassador range from the Solomon Islands to New York, but your first in Washington. Correct?

Ambassador Banks:  That’s right. I had two in New York, but of course, that’s very different. I completed my assignment as ambassador in Paris, and that was in 2014. I was invited to be a negotiator under the Treaty of Waitangi.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is the Treaty of Waitingi?

Ambassador Banks:  That is an important process in our society because it tries, as best as possible in the modern world, to address the grievances that Maori tribes have against the Crown. Going back in our history, in 1840,  the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed between the British Crown and about 500 Maori chiefs. The original intention was to protect land and living space for Maori against the arrival of colonial settlers, but as happened elsewhere, including here, the pressure for settlements was such that the treaty was put aside, and Maori lost much of their land and economic livelihood, and they continued to right through to the Twentieth Century.  In 1975, there was an act of parliament, the Treaty of Waitangi Act, which set up a tribunal so that these long-standing grievances could be brought to the Crown, and they could be compensated either by the return of land, or by compensation, or some kind of cultural recognition. That process has now been going on for more than 40 years, and thousands of settlements have been agreed. Almost of all of those tribes who wished to negotiate with the Crown have been heard. So that’s a very rewarding process to have the privilege to be part of. And Maori for the most part have been extremely patient.

Diplomatic Connections:  So you were the negotiator?

Ambassador Banks:  I was one of eight crown negotiators. What happens is they allocate a negotiator to a particular tribe (iwi), or several of them. In my case, because I was a beginner I just got one group. It’s a structured negotiation, and there’s a very good established system that you work with. Maori would be represented by a chief or a kaumatua, which means an elder, or a respected person who has authority.

Diplomatic Connections:  Each agreement involves land, and compensation?

Ambassador Banks:  Land and compensation, and other things. Since there’s a culture involved it could mean changing a name of a river or a mountain: many of the settlements involved the change of a name, which can be quite confronting for the local community. My husband grew up in a regional town called New Plymouth, because it was settled by people largely from that part of Britain. The local mountain was called Mount Egmont. But that’s not what the Maori called it. They called it Taranaki, and in that settlement the name of the mountain was changed back to Taranaki. A lot of people who had grown up with it called Mount Egmont didn’t like that at all, but they managed to get used to it. I think it’s one of the unique characteristics of New Zealand. We have a long-standing commitment to do our best to sort out the grievances of the past. We have a motto which says “Healing the past, building the future.”

Diplomatic Connections:  Now you’re back in the diplomatic world, what specific advice would you give to a newly arrived colleague about operating in Washington?

Ambassador Banks:  I don’t believe it’s different from the way you operate in any other posting. The important thing is to know exactly what the objectives are for your country, what you are trying to achieve in the relationship, what are your goals. Secondly, to build as quickly as possible a network of contacts. You don’t walk into an empty embassy, you have a whole team there who know exactly how things work, so, arriving, you have good advice about who you need to see quickly. You take advice – you listen to what everybody tells you, and you reach out to some extent to your fellow ambassadors, or at least to those of the countries that are close to you, and they too will be helpful. But it’s exactly the same approach in every new capital that you go to fresh.

Diplomatic Connections:  Isn’t there also an informal network of female ambassadors which functions outside national groups?

Ambassador Banks:  The women (ambassadors) seem to do that everywhere. When I first went to New York as permanent representative to the United Nations in 2005 I knew that Madeline Albright had earlier convened a group of women Ambassadors. And so I followed her example and re-established the group. I think we were about 24, representing every region of the world, and the men were hugely envious. When I went to Paris to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and there were only four of us (women) there, we’d have male colleagues asking why they couldn’t join us for lunch. And the women Ambassadors do get together (in Washington) - not very often, but when we do its always quite interesting.

Diplomatic Connections:  And these are not just social occasions?

Ambassador Banks:  No, they’re always working occasions. You either have a speaker, or you share thoughts about some issue. Sometimes, because of the diverse nature of the group, particularly at the UN, you could get movement on issues that had been blocked up until then.

Diplomatic Connections:  As far as your role in the region. New Zealand punches well above its weight in terms of aid – US$714 million to the Pacific over three years (2018-2021) in foreign aid this year?

Ambassador Banks:  There has been a re-set of our Pacific policy which our foreign minister, who is in fact deputy prime minister, announced. He has always been focused on our immediate neighborhood, and we’ve always been acutely aware of the challenges for the Pacific. There is an expression “the tyranny of distance’, which is to some extent lessened by modern communications, but not very much lessened for the Pacific islands. There you’ve got that combination of distance, of small size, of economies that don’t have a lot of resilience, of strains on resources, particularly now from climate change, of people coming in from outside the region and doing illegal fishing. There are numerous challenges for the Pacific Islands region. So our development system over the decades has increasingly concentrated on the Pacific. To the extent that now 70 percent of our development (aid) has a Pacific focus. I think our minister feels that although New Zealand has probably been more consistently focused on the Pacific than any other partner, even we have dropped our game a bit. So a lot of programs are being revived, like bringing parliamentarians to our parliament, strengthening government support, strengthening sport diplomacy. It recognizes that there’s a genuine partnership And Auckland is a Pacific capital.

Diplomatic Connections:  Can this also be a way to counter migration? If these micro-countries are helped to offer more economic opportunities at home, the population will be encouraged to stay at home.

Ambassador Banks:  I think there’s a combination of things. You always have a degree of self-interest in anything that you do in foreign policy, but the top objective is to give our pacific neighbors choices, so that there are options for them in the region, that there are sustainable means of using their resources that will help their economies stay viable for the future.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is your illegal immigrant situation comparable to what it is in Australia, and do you handle it the same way?

Ambassador Banks:  No, we don’t handle it the same way, there’s quite a difference of policy approach – also you have to accept a very different geographical situation. We’ve been protected really, until now. We may have the occasional illegal arrivals by sea, but most of them come by air. If people claiming refugee status manage to arrive illegally we follow the UN process, and it’s done in New Zealand. In terms of illegal migrants arriving by sea, we’ve got a huge amount of distance between us and the source countries: in Australia it’s a very short journey. So they’ve suffered a great deal more than we have from illegal migration.

Diplomatic Connections:  Many Americans, and also Europeans don’t realize how different New Zealand is from Australia in so many respects. But what does a New Zealander see as the difference between the two countries?

Ambassador Banks:  There’s an old joke, which I’m sure is apocryphal, about a New Zealander in a taxi in New York. You know how New York taxi drivers pride themselves in being able to work out where you’re from. This taxi driver couldn’t, so in the end the New Zealander told him, and he said, “Ah, New Zealand that’s joined to Australia by the Sydney Harbor Bridge, isn’t it?” In fact, it’s a good three-and-a-half hours’ flying, and it’s quite a different culture. Having lived in both countries, Australia is probably more tilted towards its relationship with the U.S. but I shouldn’t speak for them. There’s a difference in the environment, and its impact on people. Australia is a tough environment physically, dry, harsh in the interior, people cluster around the coast. New Zealand a much softer, mellower climate, it’s not such a struggle, and I think this affects a little bit the way we are.

Diplomatic Connections:  New Zealand is still officially an English-speaking country, it is not, with English as the official language.

Ambassador Banks:  Yes, but Maori (Te Reo) is the official language as well. You’re entitled to speak Te Reo in Parliament, or in a court of law. Te Reo is optional, but increasing numbers of people of European background are now learning it. There’s a huge demand to take lessons, to such an extent that you have to wait to be able to enroll.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is it taught in schools?

Ambassador Banks:  No, but there is a debate about that. It should be, in my personal view, Te Reo should be taught in school as a compulsory subject. It’s available, but it’s not part of the nationwide curriculum, but I think that’ll come. I know a lot of friends whose grandchildren and children are learning it at school, and they therefore thought, wow, we’d better start learning.

Diplomatic Connections:  Bi-lateral relations. New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence exchange with the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. Isn’t there a case for expanding Five Eyes to include other allied countries in order to confront the wider threat of terrorism?

Ambassador Banks:  Nothing stays the same forever, so perhaps in the future it will change. In the meantime, for a country like us our five eyes membership is an extremely valuable opportunity because we can belong to a bigger system, bigger catchment of information. We can make our own contribution. And there are already a number of ways in which countries that share the same democratic values and concerns for freedoms already coordinate in specific operations. Talking about the ways countries can cooperate and coordinate, one of the big issues for us at the moment in New Zealand is the Christchurch Call to Action, the initiative which our prime minister took, along with President Emmanuel Macron (of France), after the Christchurch terrorist attacks. Already at the Paris meeting in May, they had eight tech companies and seventeen countries sign up, but in New York (alongside the opening of the UN General Assembly in September) there was another meeting, again with the big tech companies and bringing in 32 more countries. We do feel satisfied that this Call to Action has been such a catalyst to bring a faster commitment from the big tech companies such as, Google, Facebook, Twitter, to work on the narrow objective of this initiative which is getting rid of the severely violent extremism online, which allowed the massacre to be live streamed. The philosophy that our prime minister leads with and it seems to have so far been successful is that you can’t regulate or legislate this; you have to do it in a collaborative way that brings countries and civil society to work with tech companies in a voluntary way. In the end, it may be that this initiative hits a hard point of no further progress, but for the time being it is making progress. That is a good example of bringing countries and players like the tech companies to work in different ways.

Diplomatic Connections:  Also on the edge of the UN General Assembly there was a climate change summit.

Ambassador Banks:  That was a really big one. The prime minister had two big objectives (in New York): The Call to Action was one and climate change was the other. As she said when she got into government, she sees climate change as the biggest, the worst, and the most urgent challenge of our time. The government has set up in New Zealand a very ambitious program of working towards to a net zero carbon emission level by 2050 across the whole economy.

Diplomatic Connections:  Regarding the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attack, new legislation was recently introduced to make registration of weapons mandatory. Is that correct?

Ambassador Banks:  Right after 15 March, which was the date of the shootings, the prime minister decided we’re going to change the gun laws. Within a month, the ban was put on all semi-automatic weapons, and all accessories that allow pump-type action - and that went through parliament with only one voice against it. In May, the Government announced the gun buy-back, where people could hand in their guns and be compensated. The gun buy-back started in June and it runs until December. They’ve already taken in 15,000 of the newly banned weapons, 70,000 parts and accessories. The buy-back – because people are entitled to between 25% and 95%  of the value of the gun - has already paid out over $200 million. The government originally allocated $158 million, the police said it could be way more than that, maybe up to 500 million, and they’re now over $200. This is huge, and the government has now launched the next stage which is establishing a gun register to link weapons and owners.

Diplomatic Connections:  Let’s switch topics, China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner, and has been for some years. It competes with Australia…

Ambassador Banks:  Yes, they used to swing back and forth for the top slot.

Diplomatic Connections:  But you’ve had some recent issues, over Huawei, for example, and generally a sense of concern about Chinese infiltration though the universities and other institutions. What is going on there, in terms of your bi-lateral relations?

Ambassador Banks:  China has been our biggest trading partner for the past five years; we were the first Western country to sign a trade agreement with China in 2008, and since then trade with China has accelerated the way it wouldn’t have without an agreement. There’s a necessary public debate going on about where we can work well and cooperatively with China, climate change, for example, and where we’re going to have differences, and we don’t hesitate to make those differences clear. Our Prime Minister was in China and she did raise our concerns about treatment of the Uighurs.

Diplomatic Connections:  How does that balance with your relationship with the United States.

Ambassador Banks:  Everybody has to be able to manage a number of different relationships, especially smaller countries like us, and we’ve so far successfully done that. The relationship with the United States is of absolute priority importance to us, and our prime minister says that. Coming back to the trade relationship with China. We don’t want to be dependent on one market, it doesn’t matter whether it’s China or Australia. We want a diverse range. Back about 15 or so years ago we had a perfect pie chart where we had a spread of trade among the EU, US, Asia, Australia, and the rest. That changed, but we would really like to be back to a more diverse spread. We don’t have preferential access to the US market. Our foreign minister has argued that, if we’re partners in everything else, we ought to have a free trade agreement; what’s wrong with us?

Diplomatic Connections:  What do you do when you’re not working?

Ambassador Banks:  I garden, I play the violin, write poetry, listen to music, read.

Diplomatic Connections:  Are you a good violinist?

Ambassador Banks:  I played in my youth. Then I didn’t play for 42 years, and then I started again. I enjoy it - I wouldn’t say I’m good – but I don’t sound terrible, either.

Diplomatic Connections:  And you listen to music.

Ambassador Banks:  We go to the New York Opera and we love jazz.

Diplomatic Connections:  What is your favorite opera?

Ambassador Banks:  It’s probably Verdi's Otello, and after that, it’s Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.

FREE Digital Edition
See and read Diplomatic Connections Magazine
View Archived Digital Editions