MPs have done a u-turn on promises to decriminalise homosexuality, under pressure from the churches.
Two years ago, in a step welcomed by many people including the gay and lesbian communities, Parliament had removed “indecent acts between men” and sodomy from a draft Crimes Bill.
Yesterday, select committee chairman Tingika Elikana said they would reinstate the clause.
In fact, in an unintended consequence of moves to make legislation gender-neutral, the anticipated effect of the bill will be to also criminalise sex between women, as well as between men.
The select committee’s recommendation to Parliament would reinstate a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment, and a sentence of seven years’ prison for consensual sodomy.
Elikana said the proposed removal of these criminal penalties had led to an outcry from some members of the community, prompting the select committee to reinstate the same-sex ban.
Cook Islands is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.
But people had the opportunity to talk about the Bill, Elikana said, and they submitted their concerns.
“There were provisions (on homosexuality) removed from the draft Bill and people said they have got some concerns about it and the committee has taken that into account,” Elikana said.
“One of the arguments surrounding it is people are saying there is no one charged with those kind of offences like homosexuality, witchcraft, sodomy and all that.
“But they say on the other side of the coin, maybe because those provisions are there in the Act that’s why nobody is doing it, so they are doing it in the privacy of their homes which is another argument.
“If you remove those provisions then you more or less encourage it to be in the open because now there is no law that says that kind of conduct is prohibited.”
Therefore, the committee decided to reinstate the bans on homosexual acts and sodomy, Elikana said.
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The committee was of the view that the country was not ready yet to move with the rest of the world on such matters. “The provisions of the 1969 Act are more or less retained in respect of those sexual related offences,” he said.
But he insisted there was progress: “We are still going forward in those matters, nobody has been prosecuted and I don’t think anybody will be prosecuted but having that in the law books is probably a deterrent to people to come out in the open and be open about it.”
Te Tiare Association, the Cook Islands’ only lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBTQI) community group, had previously welcomed the decision to decriminalise homosexuality.
The association yesterday said they would contact Parliament for confirmation on the recommendation before making any comment on it.
Te Tiare Association’s Valentino Wichman, in a submission to the previous select committee, said they had experienced threats from individuals and groups in Cook Islands who misunderstand their campaign.
Yesterday’s decision was made by a select committee comprised of Selina Napa, Tetangi Matapo, William Heather, Tereapii Maki-Kavana and Patrick Arioka.
They expect the Bill to come before Parliament for its final reading in February next year.