12 Dec 2022

Breakthrough for LGBTQI community in Cook Islands

9:13 am on 12 December 2022
The Cook Islands speaker of Parliament Niki Rattle.

The Cook Islands speaker of Parliament Niki Rattle. Photo: RNZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

A Human Rights Institute in the Cook Islands is a step closer to being finalised, and will tackle LGBTQI+ rights, among others.

The Cook Islands News reports the Ombudsman Niki Rattle as saying that, among the range of human rights to be considered by the National Human Rights Institute would be those of the LGBTQI+ community, as well as disability rights.

"This is an all-inclusive office, we're here for everyone's needs," she said.

"Fairness for all is our motto. We are Rainbow-friendly, and people-friendly, there is no picking and choosing as to who the Institute will serve."

Homosexuality is illegal in the Cook Islands.

Moves to repeal the anti-homosexuality law in the new Crimes Bill has been delayed multiple times, but Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown has said that a new bill removing homosexuality from the Crimes Act would be pursued once Parliament returns.

Te Tiare Association deals with LGBTQI issues in the Cook Islands, and president Valery Wichman said the Institute would be a great asset in assisting communities which have been marginalised.

"However, Te Tiare will need to work with the Ombudsman to understand the jurisdiction it will have over certain human rights issues, and in helping in progressing human rights issues which have been a challenge," Wichman said.

"One example is the Crimes Bill which has been ongoing for the past 10 years with two select committees and probably another one to be constituted."

Wichman said the National Human Rights Institute would be a great asset in assisting communities which have been marginalised and who feel disempowered by the current set up.

Niki Rattle said there had been discussions about establishing an NHRI going back more than five years, but it was only this year that the Ombudsman's Office had pushed forward on it.

"We've been working closely with the Crown Law Office, there has been momentum developing," she said.

"We need to go out and tell people about the role of the NHRI and the Ombudsman's office. Education about people's rights is very important."

Rattle said the policy document would be sent to Cabinet, which would then consider putting forward legislation creating the NHRI before Parliament.

"Right now, we're just scratching at the surface about the human rights requirements for Rarotonga, let alone the outer islands," she said.

She said the office needed to "go to the people, rather than them coming to us".

"There's a plan in place for getting the Pa Enua involved, we're at the funding talks stage. When you go to the Pa Enua, you have to go through all the official channels before you start anything with them, they have traditions to follow," she said.

"A lot of their own lifestyle is very sensitive to them, so going to someone to complain about a human rights breach is a really big deal, because you're going to fall out of your clan or family unit. So, we need to develop a safe space, so people can come out and talk about something."

Rattle said in the Cook Islands, pride is one of the biggest obstacles preventing people from speaking out.

"As Cook Islanders, we don't like making fusses or inconveniencing people, but we need to question those systems if basic rights are being violated," she said.

"If you find a culture is harming people, then you have to change that culture."