One of Samoa’s top judges will receive an honorary degree from a New Zealand university in recognition for his work as a trailblazer for judicial reform and an international advocate for the rights of children and young people.
Justice Vui Clarence Nelson will receive an Honorary Doctorate – Doctor of Laws from Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury at a graduation celebration to be held at the Christchurch Arena next Thursday. He says he was “blown away” by news of the award.
“It was totally unexpected, and I felt so humbled and privileged. It is a huge honour not only for me but for our judiciary and our country.”
The 67-year-old is a Samoan matai (high chief) who grew up and attended high school in Apia before being awarded a New Zealand Government scholarship to study in New Zealand as a 16-year-old.
He graduated from the University of Canterbury in 1977 with a Bachelor of Laws, practised as a lawyer for two decades, and has been a judge for over 20 years, including being appointed Senior Judge of the Supreme Court of Samoa in 2021.
It was a huge challenge for a teenager from Samoa to move to “the big smoke” of Christchurch in the 1970s, he says.
“It was a case of sink or swim, and I decided it was much better to swim than to sink. The scholarship had a huge impact on my life no doubt about it. My time at the University of Canterbury certainly shaped me.”
He says at times he did things he probably should not have done as a teenager with his mates, but it taught him about consequences and making good decisions.
“Compassion is something that all judges should have because it tempers judgment. Especially so when you are working with young people, you need to empathise with their situations in order to understand their dilemmas and their problems and why they do the things they do.”
He says his goal as a judge is always to re-establish offenders on the right track to a more productive, happy life.
Justice Nelson has been an advocate for human rights and judicial reform throughout his career, with a particular concern for the rights of children and young people and protecting young victims of sexual violence.
He was the first Pacific Islander to be elected to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which he served on for eight years until the start of this year. Working for the Committee in Geneva was “extraordinary”, particularly because no-one from the Pacific region had ever served on it before, he says.
“Working with the world’s best children’s rights experts and being part of the work that they are doing internationally was an incredible experience. It was the highs and lows; at times enjoyable and rewarding, but at other times, extremely depressing and frustrating.”
Justice Nelson has acted as the catalyst for important legislative reform in Samoa such as the creation of a sex offenders registry and the introduction of the Sex Offenders Registration Act 2017.
In 2007 he was behind the first Pacific-based Young Offenders Act, and he also helped establish the Samoa Youth Court and set up the Olomanu Juvenile Facility, specifically designed to house and rehabilitate young offenders.
Justice Nelson says in the area of judicial reform there is no shortage of things that can be done better, not only in Samoa but in other Pacific Island nations.
“Because in a lot of ways we remain behind the eight ball. We need to think outside the box because we are always under-budgeted and under-resourced.”
He is happy to drive change if it is positive change, he says.
“Sometimes you make mistakes, and we need to learn from those mistakes, try something else and move forward. I am not afraid of change.”
UC Faculty of Law Executive Dean, Professor John Page said that throughout his career Justice Nelson has fostered the values of the rule of law and pursuit of justice.
“He has demonstrably contributed to the well-being and betterment of society in Samoa, the Pacific, and beyond,” he said.