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Unlocking doors to Cook Islands’ UN membership

Saturday 22 October 2022 | Written by Supplied | Published in Opinion

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Unlocking doors to Cook Islands’ UN membership
Author Howard Henry with a copy of his book ‘Christianity created a Nation’. 21082021

The United States’ intention to establish diplomatic ties and recognise the Cook Islands as a sovereign state will open doors to United Nations membership, writes Rarotonga writer and historian Howard Henry.

President Joe Biden recently announced that the United States of America will, in the near future, establish full diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands.

In doing so, the United States will therefore recognise the Cook Islands as a sovereign nation as being a country fully capable of charting its own destiny and therefore whatever pathways, it may take in the future regarding Cook Islands Self-Determination.

President Biden’s announcement is indeed very good news for the people of the Cook Islands.

The United Nations organisation was established following a major conference in San Francisco at the end of 1945.

Three of the original signatories did not have their own citizenship at the time they first joined this organisation.

Canadian citizenship was not established until 1946.

Australian citizenship was created in 1947, and New Zealand citizenship came about through the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948. It was through this Act that the people of the Cook Islands gained New Zealand citizenship.

The criteria for United Nations membership is outlined in Article 4 of the UN Charter and can be divided into four key elements as follows:

  1. Any country applying for UN membership must meet the requirements of statehood as defined under “customary international law” as having:
  2. A defined territory,
  3. A permanent population,
  4. A government of some kind and
  5. To have the capacity to conduct foreign relations with other countries.
  6. That country must be a “peace-loving” country … with a track record to prove it.
  7. Any country applying for membership must declare that it accepts all the obligations contained in the UN Charter by:          

a) consenting to be bound by the UN Charter, a legally binding international treaty; and

            b) attach a formal declaration as such to its UN membership application.

  • The country concerned must be willing and able to carry out all the UN Charter obligations.

There is no mention in any part of the United Nations Charter that a country has to have its own citizenship status in order to qualify to become a full member of the United Nations.

To apply for UN membership is not a complicated process.

It is actually quite simple and straight forward.

The procedure to apply for UN Membership is as follows:

  1. The country concerned will submit a “letter of application” to the Secretary-General requesting membership along with a statement confirming that country’s acceptance to all the obligations of the United Nations Charter.
  2. This application is then passed across to the Security Council for its consideration.
  3. To be successful, this application must receive the support of at least nine of the 15 members of the Security Council.
  4. Once that has happened, the Security Council will then send a recommendation across to the UN General Assembly for its consideration. A two-thirds majority is needed for that country to then be admitted as a member of the United Nations.
  5. Membership becomes effective the date the formal UN resolution for admission is adopted.

However, as the situation currently stands, there is one significant “stumbling block” that will prevent the Cook Islands from becoming a member of the United Nations.

And that is the UN Security Council.

This Council has 15 members. There are five permanent members being China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States. The other 10 non-permanent members are countries elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly.

Five of the current non-permanent countries of the Security Council have diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands. These being Brazil, Iceland, India, Norway and United Arab Emirates. 

For the Cook Islands to be successful in its application to join the United Nations, that application must receive the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council.

It would take only one of the five permanent members to exercise a “veto option” for the Cook Islands membership application to be declined. Should that happen, then the Cook Islands application to join the United Nations would not proceed any further.

The Cook Islands established diplomatic relations with China in 1997. So the Chinese Government will not “veto” any Cook Islands application going before the UN Security Council.

The Cook Islands established diplomatic relations with France in 2000. So the French Government will not “veto” any Cook Islands application going before the UN Security Council.

Once the Cook Islands establishes diplomatic relations with the United States, then the United States will not “veto” any Cook Islands application going before the UN Security Council.

So with “five doors” needed to be open on the UN Security Council before the Cook Islands can hope to become a member of the United Nations, three of those doors being China, France and the United States will soon all be open.

That will leave only two countries who would have the ability to “veto”, or stop, any Cook Islands application to join the United Nations. And those two counties are:

  1. United Kingdom, and
  2. Russia.

So for the Cook Islands to have any hope of joining the United Nations, we must first establish diplomatic relations with both the United Kingdom and Russia.

Without diplomatic relations with both those countries, one or both of them could very well exercise a “veto option” in the UN Security Council. And so the Cook Islands application to join the United Nations will not proceed any further.

It currently appears that the Cook Islands has diplomatic relations with 57 other countries who are members of the United Nations.

There are two other significant points that need to be made here.

  1. The Cook Islands is not a full member of the British Commonwealth. Associate member yes. Full member no. Niue and Tokelau are also not full members of the British Commonwealth either. A check on any of the British Commonwealth Membership websites will confirm this to be the case.

To become a full member of the British Commonwealth, both the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Cook Islands must first establish diplomatic relations along the same lines as to what President Biden said the United States and the Cook Islands were about to do. 

  • Can the New Zealand Government stop, hinder or block any future attempt by the Cook Islands from joining the United Nations?

Simple answer to that is no.

The New Zealand Government has no legal mandate on constitutional authority to hinder any attempt by the Cook Islands to join the United Nations should that be the desired wish of the Government and the people of the Cook Islands.

As mentioned recently by the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta, “the bond between the Cook Islands and Aotearoa New Zealand will never break”.

It is a bond/relationship that was originally started by the indigenous people of both countries that goes back more than 800 years.

In more recent times, this bond/relationship has only got stronger based on shared ideas, values and mutual interests regarding the people of both New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

If the Cook Islands were to join the United Nations, would that weaken this bond/relationship the Cook Islands has with New Zealand?

Answer – no.

It would actually strengthen that bond/relationship between the two countries. This is because the Cook Islands would then be looked upon as having emerged as a sovereign state in its own right and so will be internationally recognised in this regard.

If the Cook Islands were to join the United Nations, would that result in any changes to Cook Islanders holding New Zealand citizenship?

No. A country having its own citizenship is not a pre-requisite to United Nations membership.

So there would be no need to amend or change any aspect of the Cook Islands/New Zealand citizenship situation.

If the Cook Islands were to join the United Nations, would that result in any changes to the current political, economic and social relationship that currently exists between New Zealand and the Cook Islands?

No. All matters in connection to the Cook Islands/New Zealand relationship can continue to develop, mature and evolve in accordance to the desired wishes of the Governments and people of both New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

As mentioned previously, in order for the Cook Islands to obtain full membership of the United Nations, “five doors” on the UN Security Council need to be open.

With the Cook Islands having diplomatic relations with China and France, then two of these doors are already open.

President Biden announced that the United States are about to establish full diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands, means that a “third door” to membership of the United Nations is about to open.

That leaves only the United Kingdom and Russia as the remaining two permanent members of the Security Council who have the potential to “veto” the Cook Islands from becoming a full member of the United Nations.

If and when these two countries establish diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands, then the “fourth and fifth door” to United Nations membership will then be open.

And so the Cook Islands can then move forward and submit an application to join the United Nations. And so with the support of the five permanent members of the Security Council, that membership application will be successful.

Without the future support of the United Kingdom and Russia, by way establishing diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands, any hope the Cook Islands may have of joining the United Nations would probably come to nothing.

But diplomacy has a way of changing, evolving and moving in different directions over a period of time.

It is true, “the Lord does move in mysterious ways” – sometimes!

And in due course, both the Governments of the United Kingdom and Russia will one day look to establish diplomatic relations with the Cook Islands.

Who knows how long it will take for this to happen, but it will happen.

It is not a question of “if” Cook Islands will gain UN membership. It is simply a question of … when?

  • Howard Henry is the eldest grandson of the late Albert Henry, the first premier of the Cook Islands.  Howard has authored a number of books including “Christianity created a Nation” – a book of many stories concerning a whole series of events following the arrival of the Gospel to Aitutaki on 26 October 1821.