Rethinking the Cook Islands’ free association agreement with NZ: Part 2

This is part two of a two-part paper, written by Evelyn in her capacity as a consultant on international development issues. The paper began as a panel discussion on sovereignty movements in the Pacific Islands at the Jahrestagung des Pazifik-Netzwerks, and introduces the free association agreement that has existed between the Cook Islands and New Zealand since 1964. It provides background to the historical and contemporary political relationships between the two nations, and raises many important questions about “where to from here for the Cook Islands?” A full academic version can be found here.

Part 2: Sovereignty, free association, or independence?

The free association arrangement between New Zealand and the Cook Islands is a pivotal force behind the movement of Cook Islanders between the two countries, and part of the Cook Islanders’ way of life is understanding and leveraging the different opportunities that exist across the Cook Islands, New Zealand and further afield. The creation of a Cook Islands transnational social field has emerged as a new conceptual understanding of the constellations of Cook Islanders’ lives stretching beyond nation state boundaries. The scale of population mobility in a globalised world is the new face of global movement of people, goods, ideas and capital, and while nation states still exert influence, engagement with what has been coined a ‘transnational social field’ is now common. Under transnationalism, the concept of the nation state is interrogated via questioning the basic assumptions of how people organise their lives. The state remains a major influence on livelihoods, but this sits alongside people’s own influences and logic in determining their lives. According to Cook Islands scholar Ron Crocombe1, “Cook Islanders of today are genetically and culturally new people, creating new culture, deriving from the past and present, the local and the international.”

“Under transnationalism, the concept of the nation state is interrogated via questioning the basic assumptions of how people organise their lives.”

As a group of people, Cook Islanders live across many boundaries – with atoll, island, and national borders actively navigated for reasons such as education, employment, celebrations, ceremonies and healthcare. The weaving of livelihoods between the Cook Islands and New Zealand by Cook Islanders is a phenomenon which is often taken for granted, and free association as an alternative to independence is typically supported without question. However, small groups of people, within both the current Cook Islands government and the transnational Cook Islands communities, are raising important questions about the future of the Cook Islands’ sovereignty. The question is: will the links between citizenship and state remain in this multiple form, or will the concepts of identity and citizenship continue to evolve?

The specifics of the free association agreement have become opaque over time as the concepts of identity, citizenship, borders, place and economy have become, for some people, fluid across space and through time, and many Cook Islanders consider their nation to be operating in a state of full independence. For example, prior to being renamed ‘Te Maeva Nui’, the annual Cook Islands Constitution celebrations were referred to by many as ‘Independence Day Celebrations’ or ‘Constitution Day Celebrations’. In the minds of Cook Islanders, the week-long event celebrates the combination of nationhood, self-government and independence. This is a reflection of the fact that the Cook Islands’ political relationship with New Zealand has become known as operating in a simultaneously independent, integrated and interdependent manner. Furthermore, many Cook Islanders uncritically perceive that their country has reached its final point in the trajectory of economic development, self-determination and sovereignty.

The intention here is not to imply political apathy among Cook Islanders. Quite the contrary. Many among the Cook Islands population are politically active at multiple scales – at the village, island, national and New Zealand level. I am a New Zealand-born Cook Islander who has focussed multiple research projects on trying to uncover the various manifestations of Cook Islands transnational livelihoods, and I have some understanding of how Cook Islanders sophisticatedly leverage the ties that tether them to New Zealand. For my family, and for many others, New Zealand citizenship remains a most tightly protected dimension of free association by Cook Islanders, affording us notions of independence whilst offering integration with New Zealand.

“Many Cook Islanders uncritically perceive that their country has reached its final point in the trajectory of economic development, self-determination and sovereignty.”

In 2015, Henry Puna, who at that time was Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, reopened the conversation regarding the country’s aspirations for United Nations membership. The dialogue between Henry Puna, the New Zealand government and the Opposition party in the Cooks has appeared only in popular media, nevertheless the different standpoints on this issue illustrate an ongoing tension between the ties that bind the Cook Islands to New Zealand, and its emerging position on the global stage. In an official statement, Henry Puna stated that, “it made sense as a maturing and growing country to aspire to be part of the UN…Our country is strong enough to stand on its own feet. We are proud of that fact”2. Henry Puna’s aspiration for UN membership demonstrated an openness to explore new possibilities for the Cook Islands’ political trajectory, and a willingness to reconceptualise its existing international relationships in this globalised era.

However, the conversation regarding UN membership in this case was, and has in the past been, abruptly stymied because of the uncertainty these questions pose with regard to New Zealand citizenship. The appeal for UN membership is a divisive issue in the Cook Islands Parliament, and in 2015 the Democratic Party publically expressed opposition to the formulation of a UN membership bid2. According to the Democratic Party, the progression of a UN bid would threaten the rights to New Zealand citizenship for Cook Islanders, and the framing of this dichotomy has been used to gain favour with the Cook Islands transnational public, as well as with the current New Zealand Government. In a 2015 statement from the spokesperson for then-Prime Minister John Key, it was made clear that New Zealand would not support the Cook Islands membership to the UN under the existing constitutional status, and that any change to the constitutional status would change the shared citizenship agreement.

The bid for UN membership by the Cook Islands has not been advanced, however the topic has seen the re-emergence of questions regarding their future. Since the formalisation of the free association agreement in 1965, the Cooks have reached an “advanced stage of free association” and have developed their own governance structures, political capacity and capability. The Cook Islands Government participates in a range of international relationships beyond New Zealand, and is party to many multilateral agreements, but the existing relationships do not bring into question Cook Islanders’ rights to New Zealand citizenship under free association. In this current era, where memberships in international organisations and multilateral agreements exert real influence on governance structures and economic sustainability, the Cooks Islands, while remaining tethered to New Zealand, needs to re-evaluate historical and contemporary political relationships.

Free association has become a taken-for-granted, positive outcome of the historical colonial relationship by both New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Cook Islanders navigate the complicated networks created by this relationship, and in a sense, navigate pathways via citizenship to New Zealand and further afield. There is a lack of information and critical analysis about the motivations for seeking UN membership on behalf of Henry Puna’s government, and the possible reasons why New Zealand continues to halt conversations in such a paternalistic manner. Beyond the small statements generated by the media about the Cook Islands, New Zealand citizenship and UN membership, the people of the Cook Islands – in both the Islands and in New Zealand – are not substantively informed on this issue. Furthermore, our access to participate in the discussions regarding our sovereignty and citizenship is as limited now as it was in the 1960s.

“There is a lack of information and critical analysis about the motivations for seeking UN membership…and the possible reasons New Zealand continues to halt conversations in such a paternalistic manner.”

The relationship between new modalities of aid, dependencies, sovereignty and pervasive forms of colonial authority needs to be investigated in the Cook Islands context. On the international world stage, the Cook Islands now operates in a manner that has evolved and expanded beyond a focussed binary relationship with New Zealand. The conversations regarding the Cook Islands’ membership to the UN are likely to resurface, and when they do, substantive critical analysis of how this could exist outside of, or within relationships with New Zealand must be conducted. The potential loss of New Zealand citizenship should not be wielded as a threat, and thus used to prohibit re-evaluation of the Cook Islands constitution in today’s globalised political environment.

This is part 2 in a 2-part series. Read part 1.

1 Crocombe, R. (2003). ‘Introduction’. In R. Crocombe, & M. Crocombe (Eds.), Cook Islands Culture: Akono’anga Maori (pp. 11-21). Suva: University of the South Pacific, Institute of Pacific Studies.

2 Kumar, R. June 18, 2015, ‘UN push nothing to do with aid, says PM’, 9311th edn, Cook Islands News, Rarotonga.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland, and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.