Brunei has introduced stoning to death as a punishment for homosexuality. The new law adds to the continuous list of human rights violations perpetuated by the Sultan of Brunei. The Guardian reports that other punishments include the removal of hands or feet if a person is caught stealing, and the introduction of the Sharia directive, which punishes Muslims who do not pray on Fridays, and imposes prison sentences on women who have had children out of wedlock, as well as those found drinking alcohol. Brunei, a small, populated country in Asia, has been under the power of the Sultan of Brunei since 1967, and a voluntary member of the Commonwealth since 1984. The new homophobic law has created a daily risk for those who want to express their sexuality, many of whom are scared to leave their home for fear of losing their life. The introduction of the death penalty has been called inhumane and a violation of the most basic human rights by international humanitarian agencies such as Amnesty International and the United Nations. While British ministers have condemned the law, there has been silence from British Prime Minister Theresa May. Clearly, the law does not align with the beliefs of the British government, so why has Brunei’s government, which is obviously violating basic human rights, not been met with at least an official public statement of condemnation from Britain? Although speaking out may aggravate a response and incite conflict, it is within the duties of the international community to protect those who will potentially be stoned to death for their sexuality. A peaceful approach needs to be taken, but to not condemn these actions means that Britain views them as humane.
An issue that has emerged is that the Sultan of Brunei is an international businessman as well as a political ruler. He has a global chain of hotels from which he profits personally. Therefore, he is not only powerful in the realm of politics but also business. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah is one of the world’s richest leaders, with a personal wealth of about $20 billion (£15 billion), and has held the throne since 1967. He described the implementation of the new penal code as “a great achievement.” Alongside his multi-million-pound hotel empire, which includes the infamous Beverly Hills Hotel, the Sultan has also been given an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. Several celebrities, including George Clooney, Ellen DeGeneres, and Sir Elton John, have called for a boycott of the hotels owned by the Sultan. The University of Oxford is also revising the honorary degree given to him. On 6 April, hundreds of LGBTQI activists protested outside of the hotels, eventually leading to the deactivation of the hotel’s media accounts. There have also been reports surfacing that the Sultan’s hotels are losing their bookings as a result of the boycotts, highlighting its apparent success. While the boycott is proving successful, we need to ask, is it really the Sultan who will face its effects, or will it be his employees? The boycott is an innovative idea that demonstrates the role of social media and celebrity voice. But, it will likely have consequences on those employed in the hotels, rather than the billionaire who owns them.
The only truly successful route is political condemnation of the Sultan’s actions, which will place pressure on the leader while attempting to keep the jobs of those who need them. But the real question is why has Britain, as part of the Commonwealth, continued its relationship with Brunei? The unbroken alliance between Britain and Brunei glorifies the actions of the Sultan and suggests that the British Commonwealth is in support of these violations of human rights. Labor MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry urged Parliament to take action against the country by removing it from the Commonwealth. It is contradictory for the British government to endorse the rights of the LGBTQI community in Britain while continuing to support these discriminatory and murderous practices elsewhere.
There clearly needs to be a firm response against the actions taken by the Sultan. Violence is not the answer, but it is not morally acceptable for Brunei to be part of the Commonwealth and continue its relationship with Britain. The more radical comments made by MPs could create an international dispute, leading to a lack of communication with Brunei. Ultimately a different approach needs to be taken, and an official statement condemning this new brutal, inhumane law must be made. So far, the official statement from the Foreign Office was that “rather than threatening to kick countries out of the Commonwealth, we believe the best way to make progress and encourage Brunei to uphold its international human rights obligations is via a constructive dialogue on this issue.” While boycotting and publicly denouncing the Sultan places peaceful yet international pressure on him to remove the new laws, it is not an entirely well-planned strategy. Employing both communication and pressure instead will mean that the strain placed on the Sultan’s own income could lead him to fade out the harsh laws that he has implemented.
There is a need to gain a deeper sociological understanding of the cultural values that have led the Sultan to introduce this law. An open dialogue needs to be created, to prevent this violation of human rights and potential loss of human lives. The removal of the country from the Commonwealth would ultimately leave those vulnerable on their own. Instead, support needs to be offered for those who feel unsafe, and although the Commonwealth technically has no jurisdiction in the country, it does provide a way in for human rights groups. Those who could lose their lives need to feel supported in their country and provided resources in order to feel as safe as possible.
With a small military base in the country, the British Army has a presence in the country. Although no military action should be taken, the existence of the base within the country offers the army a real insight into Brunei. An option that could provide some protection for those who fear persecution is the establishment of a safe house within the army base. Placing people under the jurisdiction of the British military without conflict would provide a clear and firm stance of Britain’s view of the law. Not only would it send a political signal that Britain does not support the Sultan, but it would also send a message of support and comfort for those who now fear for their lives. No violent actions should be taken against the Sultan, but it should be made apparent to him that his actions are not supported by Britain. Boycotts offer a way of social protest, with limited success, but a political voice needs to emerge to enforce this message. Because removing the country from the Commonwealth would leave those who need support on their own, the British government needs to strategically utilize their position to negotiate with the Sultan while also protecting the LGBTQI citizens of Brunei.