Brunei, a small nation on the island of Borneo in southeastern Asia, introduced new legislation this week that would allow for its citizens to be given the death penalty if they had gay sex. The law was part of a three-phase plan enacted in 2013 to gradually move the nation toward a stricter form of Islamic law known as sharia law. Although homosexuality has already been illegal for nearly a decade in Brunei, this law – which will be applied the country’s population of 420,000 Muslim population – has terrified many young Bruneians and caused international critics to boycott Bruneian businesses owned by the royal family.
The announcement of the law went largely unreported by the Bruneian media; it was only acknowledged by a small government-run gazette back in December. The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, said of the legislation this week that he was only advocating for “stronger Islamic teaching” for his citizens, reports the Guardian. However, since the country has been under strict martial law since 1961, the Bruneian media is largely censored by the government and has been unable to publish any dissenting domestic opinion against the policy. Brunei’s status as a British Commonwealth state has also further complicated the situation as many British citizens are now calling on the United Kingdom to cut all ties with the small island nation. Although British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sympathized with the sentiments of these protestors by expressing “deep UK opposition” to the new laws, the BBC reports that his office released a statement saying that “threatening to kick countries out of the commonwealth” would not be the “best way” to encourage Brunei to fulfill its human rights obligations.
Aside from the statement of condemnation issued by the U.K. Foreign Secretary’s Office, the international community has largely fallen silent on this issue. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to give a statement is particularly surprising given the country’s deep political and military ties to Brunei and its royal family. However, as is generally the case with issues of LGBTQ+ rights, the preponderance of international opposition has actually come from celebrity activists. Both George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres have spoken out on the issue and the two have encouraged their fans to boycott hotels and airlines that are owned by the Sultan and his relatives. While these efforts could bring increased international criticism to the Sultan, the financial repercussions will most likely just hurt innocent low-level employees of the Sultan’s multinational corporations. Although there is little that can be done about public opinion of gay rights in Brunei foreign governments and NGOs have the responsibility and the means to instead pressure the government to treat all of their citizens equally before the wall. This goal could be accomplished by threatening to pull military aid – the UK still maintains a military base in Brunei – and making members of the Bruneian royal family persona-non grata in the west. Such actions would only target the upper echelons of Bruneian society, sparing the members of the LGBTQ+ that the new law persecutes.
If the international community fails to effectively respond to this affront to human rights, other countries may be emboldened to adopt stricter sharia law or other new anti-gay legislation. While the number of countries that allow for capital punishment of LGBTQ+ citizens is limited, most convicted individuals still face fines, jail, physical torture, and life imprisonment. However, given Brunei’s conservative shift, these punishments could be getting worse instead of better. Therefore, for LGBTQ+ citizens in the 73 countries with such laws, the threat of discrimination and physical harassment under the law is as prevalent as ever.
Since most of the international community has been reluctant to respond to the crisis, the LGBTQ+ citizens in Brunei will likely face further discrimination and may even be forced to seek refuge in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. Should the circumstances of the new law garner international media attention, this will put a greater pressure on other countries to respond. It is imperative that the international community treat discrimination against LGBTQ+ citizens the same as it would any other anti-minority legislation and respond in the strongest possible terms.
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