Cook Islands - Overview

The 2007 Disaster Risk Management Act (DRMA), implemented in the wake of the devastating 2005 cyclone season, underpins the current structure for DRM in the Cook Islands. Under this act, ultimate responsibility for emergency management sits with the National Disaster Risk Management Council, which is responsible for the creation and oversight of the National Disaster Risk Management Plan 2017 (NDRMP) and any sub-plans (for outlying islands) that are deemed appropriate. Administration and “maintenance” of the plan(s) lies with Emergency Management Cook Islands (EMCI), within the Office of the Prime Minister (the NDMO). In the event of a State of Emergency/Disaster being declared or at the request of the Director of the EMCI, a Response Executive is created. This body, chaired by the National Controller (who is in fact the Police Commissioner), and which includes the Director of the EMCI, is responsible for directing the immediate response to a national event. This body will operate from the National Emergency Operations Centre, which EMCI has the responsibility to establish and maintain. In addition to the above, a Disaster Recovery Coordinator is appointed by the Response Executive to coordinate recovery efforts. This individual is responsible to the Director for coordinating “all resources and services” in relation to recovery before, during and after an event. Their formal powers appear limited, however, outside the allocation “and administration of financial and material aid”.


A sub-national DRM framework established through the Island Councils complements this national level. These bodies are responsible for the creation of Disaster Risk Management Committees under the chairmanship of the Island Council chair and include representatives appointed by the Director. The island councils are responsible for the appointment of a Disaster Coordinator for each island. This individual is responsible for implementing the Disaster Risk Management plan for the island concerned, as approved by the island Disaster Risk Management Committee.


Alongside the legislative and institutional structure sits the policy planning framework. From 2009, this comprised the national Action Plan for Disaster Risk Management. A review of this structure in 2018, under the second Joint National Action Plan (JNAP II), led to the recognition of several fundamental problems with this structure. Firstly, the structure is highly response focussed and lacks overall a whole of government/all hazard approach. Secondly, the requirement under the DRM Act for a State of Emergency/Disaster declaration (or equivalent request by the Director) means that smaller events are not sufficiently covered by the framework. These and other perceived weaknesses have been addressed in the 2018–2023 Strategic Roadmap for Emergency Management.
The Cook Islands are a self-governing territory within the Realm of New Zealand. The relationship is one of free association governed by the Cook Islands Constitution Act 1965 (a New Zealand statute) and the Joint Centenary Declaration of the Principles of the Relationship Between New Zealand and the Cook Islands 2001. The Cook Islands government is in charge of defence and foreign affairs but may request support from the government of New Zealand when required. Although a small number of states have explicitly recognised the Cook Islands as a sovereign state (including the Federated States of Micronesia) most continue to treat the Cook Islands as a self-governing territory within the Realm of New Zealand. Nevertheless, the Cook Islands is signatory to a number of treaties, including a number of relevance to Disaster Risk Reduction (and is recognised has having full treaty-making capacity by the UN Secretariat). It is also a full member of a range of international and UN agencies, including the FAO, WHO and UNESCO, and has established formal diplomatic ties with a number of states. Despite this international recognition, the Cook Islands is not a member of the United Nations and, if it were to accede to the UN, New Zealand has made it clear that this would lead to the end of the free association relationship. Importantly this would mean that Cook Islanders would cease to be New Zealand citizens.


The Cook Islands is a unitary state with a unicameral Parliament bound by the Cook Islands Constitution Act. The head of government is the Prime Minister, who appoints Ministers to exercise executive authority. Ministers are responsible to Parliament. There are ten local government administrative sub-divisions representing the ten inhabited outer islands of the archipelago (aside from Nassau, which is governed from Pukapuka). Rarotonga (the largest island) itself has a formally recognised structure called Puna (villages) of which there are ten. A series of village committees exist throughout the islands but they have limited formal legislative recognition (although the Nassau island committee has a formal role in advising the Pukapuka Council on matters concerning the island). The head of state is the Queen in Right of New Zealand (the reigning UK Monarch) but her (largely ceremonial) role is exercised by the Queen’s Representative to the Cook Islands. The Governor-General of New Zealand retains a nominal role in matters of Defence and International Affairs.