Independence lessons: what the Cook Islands can teach Greenland | Polarjournal
Miriam Cullen (right) during a visit to Aasiaat, the hometown of her student assistant, Benedicte Sofie Holm (left) (Photo: Arctic Hub)

You might not think it, but Greenland has a lot in common with the Cook Islands. Perhaps that is why one of the things they do not share is being so closely looked at in Greenland as it progresses towards independence from Denmark

Working as a legal researcher in Copenhagen, Miriam Cullen often heard that Denmark and Greenland had a unique relationship, one that was unlike the relationship shared by other countries.

But Ms Cullen didn’t entirely agree. Because, from a legal perspective, Greenland’s relationship with Denmark is comparable to other colonial relationships. In fact, you might not think it, but in many ways the Cook Islands, a Pacific archipelago, is similar to Greenland.

More about these similarities further down, but, first, another question: why would a researcher even find it worth comparing Greenland to a South Sea island?

The topic is of interest because the Cook Islands has a more independent relationship with New Zealand, which ruled it as a colony until 1965, than Greenland has with Denmark. The Cook Islands’ legal agreement with New Zealand, known as free association, is an inspiration for the people of Greenland.

”In a day-to-day sense, you wouldn’t feel much difference if you implemented this model in Greenland. But, if you did, Greenland could, without doubt, become its own state and would be able to make its own decisions in questions of foreign policy and security,” Ms Cullen tells Arctic Hub. ”And with the recent activism in Greenland, we have also seen an increased interest in the free-association model.”

Similarities despite different geographies

We will return to free association later. But first, let’s have a look at why the Cook Islands and Greenland are worth comparing to each other.

The Cook Islands and Greenland have completely different geographies, and they lie on opposite sides of the Earth. In spite of this, there are some similarities between the two, Ms Cullen points out. Both have populations in the tens of thousands, are majority indigenous, have close relationships to the natural environment and have endured a history of colonisation.

Moreover, there are similarities between their colonial rulers.

”Both New Zealand and Denmark view themselves as good global citizens and states that adhere to human rights conventions. Both wield a lot of soft power globally and have strong diplomacy. And they are of roughly equal size,” says Ms Cullen, who is from New Zealand but works in Denmark. “Because of this it makes more sense to compare the colonies of these two states than colonies that have belonged to the US, for example.”

A green land that has lessons for Greenland (Photo: Patrick Nunn)

Another way that Greenland and the Cook Islands are alike is in their colonial histories. In both places, the populations were encouraged to learn new languages in school — Danish and English, respectively — and through that lost touch with their original cultures. Food customs were also affected in both places.

“In both places there was a ’civilising process’ in which the populations were encouraged to adopt European lifestyles, languages and education. These shifts can diminish one’s cultural identity and sense of belonging,” Ms Cullen says.

In addition, Greenland and the Cook Islands both inherited another important thing from their colonial rulers (and this is where Ms Cullen expertise comes in): they inherited a fully-fledged legal system which has decided everything from the education system and at what age to start school to the criminal justice system and how long prison sentences should be.

”Their legal systems were designed from a Western tradition that did not match their cultural norms. So, it has had an influence on the increased suicide rates and social and mental health issues that you see in both places. All of it can be traced back to the colonial history,” Ms Cullen says.

Similarities can also be found in both countries’ vulnerability to climate change. Even though the sea levels in Greenland are falling while they are rising on the Cook Islands, both countries are highly dependent on the environment around them.

”Greenlanders and Cook Islanders have been used to big changes in, for example, their fishing possibilities, but the changes this time can prove to be too great. That’s another way that you lose connection to your place: if your traditional knowledge is no longer true,” Ms Cullen says.

If the event that climate change causes extensive damage, countries like Greenland and the Cook Islands would be eligible for compensation from Western countries. In the past few years, the topic of whether indigenous people should be compensated for such damages has been discussed at international climate conferences. This is another connection between the countries that Ms Cullen is investigating.

Different ways of thinking

And now back to free association.

Ms Cullen hopes that her time in Greenland will inspire people there to consider how their relationship with Denmark could be structured. In May, she participated in a panel debate where she presented the Cook Islands’ free-association model to a Greenlandic audience.

”The thing that makes this comparison useful is that you can see another way of doing things. You see what has worked in other places and what hasn’t. The Cook Islands are comparable to Greenland in many ways, but New Zealand has chosen to go in another direction than Denmark in the question of independence. And that’s interesting,” Ms Cullen says.

When her project is completed, she hopes that it can also be useful for other territorial entities, places such as Puerto Rico and the Dutch Caribbean, where independence is also being discussed. Because, it would seem, Greenland’s relationship with Denmark is not as unique as some people would have you believe.

Miriam Cullen is an associate professor of public law and sustainability at Københavns Universitet, in Copenhagen. Until July, she will be a visiting researcher at Ilisimatusarfik, in Nuuk. Read more about her project.

Ole Ellekrog, Arctic Hub

Arctic Hub is responsible for disseminating research about Greenland to audiences outside of academia. Articles are published here as part of a partnership with PolarJournal.

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