SYDNEY - Former Australian prime minister John Howard has been awarded the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II, a rare accolade handed to just 24 living people, virtually all British.
The insignia, which is in the monarch's personal gift, recognises distinguished service in Commonwealth countries.
"I am touched by the personal compliment but I also see it very much as a mark of the queen's great affection and esteem for Australia," Howard told Australian media after a ceremony at Buckingham Palace late Thursday.
There have been few other foreign recipients, with Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela among those to have received the award.
Howard's inclusion on the list of 24 puts him alongside the likes of former British leader Margaret Thatcher, broadcaster David Attenborough, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and artist David Hockney.
Past holders have included Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale, sculptor Henry Moore, composer Edward Elgar, writers Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot, and former British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Howard, a staunch monarchist, was the conservative leader of Australia from 1996 to 2007, the second-longest serving prime minister after Robert Menzies.
He was in power when the country rejected a referendum on severing ties with the royal family in 1999, and has remained a vocal opponent of Australia becoming a republic.
During his time in office he presided over a period of strong economic growth while sending troops to Iraq to join the US-led coalition.