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Pacific first: Wichman wins prestigious human rights award

Saturday 10 February 2024 | Written by RNZ | Published in Features, Weekend

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Pacific first: Wichman wins prestigious human rights award
French Ambassador Laurence Beau, Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand Kairangi Samuela, Puai Wichman (Valery's Dad), Valery Wichman, German Ambassador Nicole Menzenbach. Photo: RNZ Pacific / Tiana Haxton/24020922

Valery Wichman, a leading figure in the Cook Islands’ LGBTQI+ movement, was presented with the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Wellington.

She is one of 12 people to receive the award; joining recipients from Syria, Venezuela, SAR Hong Kong (China), the Central African Republic, Iraq, Lebanon, Poland, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria. However, Wichman is the first Pacific recipient of the award.

She works as a barrister and solicitor, for the Cook Islands Government, and is a leading campaigner for human rights in that small country.

Wichman is also one of the founders the Cook Islands rainbow group Te Tiare Association, and has been a leading figure in the LGBTQI+ movement throughout the Pacific for almost 20 years.

She said this award is in recognition of generations of rainbow community members advocating and pushing for positive change.

“We talk about equality before the law, which is guaranteed under our Constitution but it’s more than that, and it’s about instilling those foundational values which are prominent in our cultures, island cultures, Cook Islands, wherever,” Wichman told RNZ Pacific.

“We all must love each other, we must be kind to each other, and we must respect each other despite our differences and so for me this recognition shows me that the world is watching and the world acknowledges the hard fight from our Pa Metua right down to today.”

Wichman also said “we’ve been conditioned to ‘othering’ people who are different, and I guess this part of the process of ‘un-othering us’”.

This is not the first time she has been recognised for her work.

In 2016 she received a Queen’s Young Leaders Award for supporting LGBTQI+ rights in the Cook Islands. She helped to draft policy and worked with policymakers to develop support services for the LGBTQI+ community.

In 2023, Te Tiare Association and Pride Cook Islands were both instrumental in drafting a bill which decriminalised same-sex relationships. The Bill was passed in the Cook Islands Parliament on 14 April of that year.

“The significance of it all is the first time our government has been able to sort of separate church and state enabling or understanding that there are constitutional obligations and responsibilities that they must uphold and that was shown through the decision that was made last year,” Wichman said.

Wichman thanked her allies in the community, who she believes helped change not just the law but peoples’ mindsets.

She also had a message for every child or adult who may feel different.

“You are amazing, you are beautiful, and you are meant to be here, so go forth and just embrace the world. If you can get help from your family or friends or other community members, reach out.”

Since 2016, France and Germany have used International Human Rights Day as an opportunity to acknowledge individuals around the world who have shown an outstanding commitment to promoting human rights.

Nicole Menzenach, the German Ambassador to Aotearoa/New Zealand, Samoa, Tuvalu and the Cook Islands, explained that every year the German and French Embassies around the world are asked by their governments to select an outstanding person who is fighting for dignity and human rights. From 56 embassies, 12 names are selected.

Menzenbach said she was proud that Wichman’s name was among them.

The Ambassador of France to New Zealand, the Cook Islands, and Samoa, Laurence Beau said this award recognises all the great work Wichman has done over so many years.

Beau said under Wichman’s leadership as president, Te Tiare Association helped advance the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in the Cook Islands - and achieved a milestone: same-sex relations were decriminalised in the Cook Islands in April 2023.

“It is not a surprise that her work has brought both national and international recognition,” Beau said.