Brunei is a tiny country located on the north coast of the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. According to the CIA World Factbook, the country is “slightly smaller than Delaware” and has about 450,000 people. Hassanal Bolkiah has been sultan since 1967, and Brunei has been independent of British rule since 1984. Like many countries formerly under British rule, Brunei’s penal code included Section 377, which banned “intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal.”

In 2014, Bolkiah instituted Brunei’s Shariah Penal Code, which included harsh penalties for crimes, CBS News reported. After protests, Brunei delayed enforcing the most contested parts of the law, but in April of 2019, the harshest laws of that code went into effect. As a result, many have called for a boycott of Brunei and its affiliated businesses.

Define “harsh.”
The New York Times reported that the new laws include death by stoning for sex between men or for adultery, and amputation of limbs for theft:

Beginning on [April 3], extramarital sex, anal sex, and abortion are to be punished by death by stoning. The death penalty will also be required for some other offenses, including rape and some forms of blasphemy or heresy, like ridiculing the Quran or insulting the Prophet Muhammad.

The law requires amputation of a hand or foot for some crimes, and whipping for others. The punishment for lesbian sex, previously imprisonment and a fine, is now to be 40 lashes.

In some cases, the harshest penalties apply only to Muslims; in other cases, they apply regardless of faith.

The punishments apply to many people who would be considered minors in the West. Anyone who has reached puberty is treated as an adult — while younger children who are old enough to understand right and wrong may be flogged.

Additionally, the new laws could have specific consequences for transgender and non-binary people. Human Rights Watch reported “the law also attempts to legislate transgender people out of existence by prohibiting dressing in the attire associated with a different sex.”

Is any of this even allowable under international law?
Human Rights Watch referenced a whole litany of ways these laws violate international human rights laws, including:

Provisions of the Sharia penal code violate Brunei’s obligations under international human rights law, including the rights to life, freedom from torture and other ill-treatment, expression, religion, privacy, and individual autonomy, among others. The code is discriminatory on its face, and violates many rights of women, children, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, among others.

The punishments provided under the new code violate customary international law prohibitions against torture and other ill-treatment, as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and treaties to which Brunei is party, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The use of stoning or intentional amputation as a punishment violates the absolute prohibition of all forms of torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has said in its General Comment No. 36 that “under no circumstances can the death penalty ever be applied as a sanction against conduct” that is protected by international law, including adultery and homosexuality. Retaining the death penalty for such “offenses” is a form of arbitrary deprivation of life and violates Brunei’s international legal obligations.

The code also imposes the death penalty for some forms of robbery and rape, and for insult or defamation of the Prophet Mohammad (articles 63, 76, 220) by both Muslims and non-Muslims. This is inconsistent with the international principle that the death penalty should be reserved for only “the most serious crimes,” namely those involving intentional killing.

Additionally, Human Rights Watch said, the new Sharia penal code violates freedom of expression.

The Human Rights Watch referenced the United Nations. What has the UN said about this new law?
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement in which UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said:

I appeal to the Government to stop the entry into force of this draconian new penal code, which would mark a serious setback for human rights protections for the people of Brunei if implemented… In reality, no judiciary in the world can claim to be mistake-free, and evidence shows that the death penalty is disproportionately applied against people who are already vulnerable, with a high risk of miscarriages of justice. I urge Brunei to maintain its de facto moratorium on the use of capital punishment.

Tell me more about the “boycott of Brunei and its affiliated businesses.”
Brunei’s Ministry of Finance has a branch called the Brunei Investment Agency. The Brunei Investment Agency owns The Dorchester Collection, an international group of luxury hotels:

  • The Dorchester, London
  • 45 Park Lane, London
  • Coworth Park, UK
  • The Beverly Hills Hotel, Beverly Hills
  • Hotel Bel-Air, Los Angeles
  • Le Meurice, Paris
  • Hotel Plaza Athenee, Paris
  • Hotel Eden, Rome
  • Hotel Principe di Savoia, Milan

In an essay for Deadline, George Clooney called for a boycott of those hotels:

They’re nice hotels. The people who work there are kind and helpful and have no part in the ownership of these properties. But let’s be clear, every single time we stay at or take meetings at or dine at any of these nine hotels we are putting money directly into the pockets of men who choose to stone and whip to death their own citizens for being gay or accused of adultery. Brunei is a Monarchy and certainly any boycott would have little effect on changing these laws. But are we really going to help pay for these human rights violations? Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens? I’ve learned over years of dealing with murderous regimes that you can’t shame them. But you can shame the banks, the financiers and the institutions that do business with them and choose to look the other way.

This is not the first time these hotels were boycotted. They were boycotted in 2014 when news spread about Brunei adopting its harsher penal code. Because of those protests, Brunei delayed parts of the law that required death by stoning. In his letter, Clooney acknowledged with a bit of regret that the death by stoning was only delayed, rather than prevented:

A couple of years ago two of those hotels in Los Angeles, The Bel-Air and The Beverly Hills Hotel were boycotted by many of us for Brunei’s treatment of the gay community. It was effective to a point. We cancelled a big fundraiser for the Motion Picture Retirement Home that we’d hosted at the Beverly Hills Hotel for years. Lots of individuals and companies did the same. But like all good intentions when the white heat of outrage moves on to the hundred other reasons to be outraged, the focus dies down and slowly these hotels get back to the business of business. And the Brunei Investment Agency counts on that. They own nine of the most exclusive hotels in the world. Full disclosure: I’ve stayed at many of them, a couple of them recently, because I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t know who owned them.

Business Insider reported that besides Clooney, celebrities boycotting the hotels include Dua Lipa, Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Luke Evans, Billie Jean King, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Even Senator Ted Cruz tweeted his support of Clooney’s boycott.

What other consequences could there be for Brunei?
According to Business Insider, governments and travel agencies have cut ties with Royal Brunei Airlines and cancelled Brunei travel advertisements. Some universities have been pressured to revoke the honorary degrees Bolkiah has been awarded over the years. The Guardian reported that Queen Elizabeth had previously made Bolkiah an honorary air chief marshal in the Royal Air Force and an honorary admiral in the Royal Navy. Protestors have called for these honorary titles to be stripped from Bolkiah.

Have any countries condemned the new laws?
CBS News reported that the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France had all urged Brunei to not implement the laws.

Has the government of Brunei responded to any of the criticism of the laws?
CBS News reported that Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof, Minister of Foreign Affairs II for Brunei, sent a letter to the United Nations saying that the law “focuses more on prevention than punishment… its aim is to educate, deter, rehabilitate and nurture rather than punish.” Yusof went on to say that the law had an “extremely high evidentiary threshold” as it required the act must be witnessed by two to four men of “high moral standing.”

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