Lessons on independence: What Greenland can learn from the Cook Islands

Miriam Cullen, Bendicte Sofie Holm, Ilisimatusarfik, Aasiaat, Greenland, independence, Free Association Agreement, Arctic Hub, Miriam Cullen

The New Zealand legal scholar Miriam Cullen is currently in Greenland to investigate if the country can take lessons from an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.


By Ole Ellekrog


When she worked as a legal researcher in Copenhagen, Miriam Cullen often heard that Denmark and Greenland have a unique relationship. A relationship that cannot be compared to any other countries.


But Miriam Cullen did not entirely agree. Because from a legal perspective, Greenland’s relationship with Denmark is comparable to other colonial relationships. In fact, even if you would not think so, in the Pacific Ocean lies a little archipelago called the Cook Islands that in many ways is similar to Greenland. More about these similarities further down.


First another question: why is it interesting for a researcher to compare Greenland to a South Sea island?


It is interesting because the Cook Islands has a more independent relationship with its colonial power New Zealand than Greenland has with Denmark. Therefore, the so-called Free Association Model, which is the type of legal agreement the Cook Islands has with New Zealand, is inspiring people in 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,” Miriam Cullen tells Arctic Hub.


”And with the recent activism in Greenland, we have also seen an increased interest in the Free Association Model,” Miriam Cullen said.



”The thing that makes this comparison useful is that you can see another way of doing things.” Mirriam Cullen



Similarities despite difference in geographies

We will return to the Free Association Model later. But let’s now look at why the Cook Islands and Greenland are worth comparing.


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, Miriam Cullen points out. Both places possess populations in the tens of thousands, are majority indigenous, have close relationships to natural environment, and have endured a history of colonization.


SWIPE THE PHOTOS: Just like in Greenland, there are both mountains and beaches on The Cook Islands – they are just a bit more lush. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

Moreover, there are similarities between the states which colonized them, New Zealand and Denmark.


”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,” said Miriam Cullen who is from New Zealand herself and 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 USA for example,” she said.


Comparable colonial histories

Another point at which Greenland and the Cook Islands are alike is in their colonial histories. In both places, the populations were, as an example, encouraged to learn new languages in school – Danish and English – and through that lost touch with their original cultures. Food customs were also affected in both places.


“In both places there was a ’civilizing 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,” Miriam Cullen said.


In addition to this, both Greenland and the Cook Islands inherited another important thing from their colonial powers – and this is where Miriam Cullen is an expert. 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.


”They 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,” Miriam Cullen said.


Vulnerable to climate change

Similarities can also be found in the islands’ 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 nature 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,” Miriam Cullen said.


PHOTOS: Miriam Cullen during a visit to Aasiaat. In the photo above, she poses with her student assistant Benedicte Sofie Holm whose family is from Aasiaat. 

If the consequences of climate change prove to have too big of an impact, Greenland and the Cook Islands could potentially be eligible for compensation from Western countries. In the last few years, it has been discussed at international climate conferences if indigenous people should be compensated for the damages to their countries caused by climate change. This is another connection between the countries that Miriam Cullen is investigating.


Different ways of thinking

And now back to the Free Association Model.


Because Miriam Cullen is hoping that her time in Greenland will give the people of Greenland inspiration to consider many ways that the relationship with Denmark could be structured. In May, she will participate in a panel debate where she will present the Free Association Model of the Cook Islands 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,” Miriam Cullen said.


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 evidently, Greenland’s relationship with Denmark is not as unique as some people seem to believe.


Miriam is a Visiting Researcher at Ilisimatusarfik until July 2023, and Associate Professor of Public Law and Sustainability at Copenhagen University. Read more about Miriam Cullen’s project here.