By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
Absolute monarch Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei announced in January a harsh form of sharia law will be enacted. Effective in three phases beginning now and spanning two years, the edict eventually allows for the stoning to death of homosexuals, adulterers, and apostates; for amputation of limbs for those convicted of theft; and flogging for abortions and the consumption of alcohol. The capital offense provisions of the law reportedly apply only to Muslims.
Sultan Bolkiah claims this is a step in solidifying a long cultural tradition in the sultanate which was established in the fourteenth century. Increasingly conservative Muslim politicians and officials in Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia are beginning to move from sharia being limited to family matters to now criminal law and capital offenses. Acheh in Indonesia is included especially. While Brunei enjoys one of the highest per capital income in the world, has many social benefits such as effectively free health care and education, its population of over 416,000 individuals now is seeing human rights restricted in a trend that is generating international condemnation in the West. Al-Jazeera reported that many members of the Muslim ethnic Malay majority have voiced cautious support for the changes. However, non-Muslim citizens, who are fifteen percent of the population, led a rare burst of criticism on social media earlier this year, but largely went silent after the sultan called for a halt.
But will Western governments be willing to isolate countries engaging in abuses of individuals and oppression of the human rights of populations or is trade and money going to become the focus and inconveniences such as abuse continue to be ignored?
In another familiar trade above human rights story, on the day this sharia law measure took effect the Obama Administration’s chief trade negotiator Michael Froman was lobbying Capitol Hill to ratify The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), strongly sought by President Obama and others since 2009, which would bind the United States to providing the sultanate with economic privileges.
Senator Elizabeth Warren stated her concern about the secrecy of the trade agreement (leaked to various news organizations) and how this agreement will allow corporations and governments the ability to override existing laws.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other NGOs have expressed concern and worry that governments such as Malaysia and Brunei which now both have laws criminalizing homosexuality are now given special trade privileges, whereas trade sanctions and other measures by corporations, governments, and individuals to attempt to instigate change in these governments to protect their citizens should be instead used. Providing trade advantages only serves to reward violations of human rights.
There are concerns in the non-Muslim cultures within Brunei. According to The Diplomat the sharia bans the propagation of religions other than Islam or atheism. The offense will carry a $20,000 fine and/or a prison term of up to five years. This has compromised the 30,000 Filipinos living in Brunei and prompted a warning from a Catholic priest in the tiny, oil-rich sultanate that there will be no baptisms. “There will be no baptisms. There is not a lot we can do about it. We will have to wait and see what happens,” he told Britain’s Independent newspaper.
Schools have also been warned that children are not to be exposed to any religion, be it through ceremonies or acts of worship, but Islam and that non-Muslims would be subjected to some aspects of the new laws. It was not clear exactly what parts of Sharia law would be imposed on non-Muslims.
On the International front Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said: “Brunei’s decision to implement criminal Sharia law is a huge step backwards for human rights in the country. It constitutes an authoritarian move towards brutal medieval punishments that have no place in the modern, 21st century world. The entire world should express its outrage and heap criticism on this ill-considered move and urge the Brunei government to immediately reconsider.” Rupert Abbott of Amnesty International, noted the laws carried the death penalty for acts that should not be considered crimes and would “take the country back to the dark ages.” He further added, “Brunei Darussalam’s new Penal Code legalizes cruel and inhuman punishments. It makes a mockery of the country’s international human rights commitments and must be revoked immediately.”
In a carefully worded statement the UN has said it considers some of the penalties to be “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” under international law. As such their use could warrant an investigation from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The backlash against the sultanate and its business interests is generating in the United States in certain circles. The sultan owns the Dorchester Collection which includes the iconic and luxurious Beverly Hills Hotel and is now experiencing this. Entertainer Jay Leno protested outside the hotel with the Feminist Majority Foundation The foundation moved its Global Women’s Rights Awards from the hotel as did Gill Action’s Political OutGiving conference. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres called for a boycott and Virgin CEO Richard Branson tweeted “No @Virgin employee, nor our family, will stay at Dorchester Hotels until the Sultan abides by basic human rights.”
Some organizations went to some considerable length to voice their resolve against the Beverly Hills. According to Fox411 the teen suicide prevention charity Teen Line forfeited its $60,000 down payment to take the event elsewhere, and the Hollywood Reporter notified the Beverly Hills Hotel that it will not hold its annual Women in Entertainment breakfast there. The Beverly Hills City Council is meeting to discuss a resolution condemning Brunei’s new laws, and encourage “the government of Brunei to divest itself of the Beverly Hills Hotel.”
The sultan claims that the law allows wide discretion on behalf of judges on whether or not to impose these internationally condemned punishments of gays, adulterers and others judged to be in violation of these sharia laws. But it remains to be seen how this is actually carried out. The fact that these laws are in force is a moral outrage in more open and free societies.
Since Brunei is ruled by an absolute monarch it remains to be seen how influential international and internal pressures to embrace core human rights will be. One could argue that it only requires the changing of one mind to end this return to a dark chapter in Islam that is seemingly increasing in some areas of the world. But when face and other pressures are at hand this might prove difficult. Brunei does have a parliament yet it is completely subservient to the sultanate. Yet with a nation as developed and committed to modernism in trade and international monetary issues as Brunei, it does on the surface seem rather disconnected with its departure from the tenets of basic human rights and justice.
By Darren Smith
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