Cook Islands repeals decades-old law criminalizing sex between men

Stephen Wright
Cook Islands repeals decades-old law criminalizing sex between men People displaying LGBT pride colors listen as lawmakers debate decriminalization of homosexuality, April 14, 2023.
Screen grab from a Cook Islands’ Parliament video

The Cook Islands has decriminalized homosexuality and strengthened its law against rape in a sign of progress for sexual minorities and women in socially conservative Pacific island countries.

The Cook Islands parliament voted on Friday to update its decades-old Crimes Act. 

Apart from repealing a law that criminalized sex between men, the changes remove marriage as a defense in rape cases. They also make child-sex abuse a global offense – meaning perpetrators can face trial in local courts if the crime happened abroad. 

“It is not the government’s role to interfere in the private lives of individuals when activity is consensual and has not caused harm to anyone,” Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown told parliament.

“I know that our people have their views on this bill. Our older generation have conservative views, our younger generation have more liberal views,” he said. “Every country in the world at some stage has had to deal with this matter of removing discriminatory laws that criminalize people.” 

Under the 1969 Crimes Act, acts of indecency between males in the Cook Islands were punishable by up to five years in prison, and up to seven years for sodomy. Human Dignity Trust, which supports legal challenges to anti-LGBT laws worldwide, said the local law against homosexuality wasn’t enforced in recent years.

Homosexuality remains illegal in six Pacific island countries: Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands. Maximum sentences are up to 14 years in some of those countries, though prosecutions are rare. 

Such laws are a legacy of the colonial era when countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany divided the Pacific into spheres of influence and also introduced Christianity.

Brown said the women’s rights were also being advanced with the removal of marriage as a defense to rape charges. 

“Domestic violence and domestic sexual abuse against women, or men for that matter, can no longer be accepted just because you are married,” he said. 

Mark Brown, prime minister of the Cook Islands, argues in parliament to repeal a decades-old law criminalizing homosexuality, April 14, 2023. [Screen grab from a Cook Islands’ Parliament video]

Most of the two dozen lawmakers in the Cook Islands parliament voted in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality including all 15 members of the governing party’s caucus. 

Opposition lawmaker Teariki Heather, who opposed the decriminalization, said it could lead to the Cook Islands following New Zealand, which legalized same-sex marriage in 2013 following decriminalization of homosexuality nearly three decades earlier.

“Look at the nation of New Zealand today. Look at what they have agreed upon in their legislation and their law of allowing same-sex marriage, man and a man, a woman and a woman,” he said. “As we look around at what is happening around the world, ask yourself this question: do we want to become like them?” 

The Cook Islands, home to some 17,000 people, is about 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) northeast of New Zealand, which is responsible for the small island country’s defense. President Joe Biden said last year that the United States planned to recognize the Cook Islands as an independent state – it has grouped it with New Zealand until now – as part of renewed U.S. attention to the Pacific following inroads by China.

Karla Eggleton, president of LGBT group Pride Cook Islands, said parliament’s vote signifies that the law has caught up with Cook Islands society. 

“It means that we are recognized, it means that the rainbow community are equals in the eyes of the law,” she told Radio New Zealand. 

“We can stand side by side and hand by hand with our neighbors, with our family, with our friends to say that we are truly being accepted for who we are,” she said.

UNAIDS, the U.N. agency that leads the global campaign to prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, welcomed the Cook Islands law change.

Anti-LGBT laws reinforce stigma and obstruct access healthcare, it said.

“This decision by Cook Islands will save lives,” Eamonn Murphy, UNAIDS’ Asia Pacific director, said in a statement. 


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