Brunei: the future of LGBTQ rights
IGDC intern Chelsea Davey gives insight into LGBTQ in Brunei.
It is well-known news now that as of last month, new and stricter Sharia penal codes were introduced in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Brunei. It’s leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, called for stronger Islamic teachings in the country which coincided with the introduction of even stricter Sharia laws and punishments. This controversial legislation, introduced on 3rd April, included archaic punishments for certain offences such as the amputation of hands or feet for theft, capital punishment for offences such as rape, adultery or insulting the Prophet Mohammed and most controversially, forty strokes of the cane or 10 years in jail for lesbian sex and death by stoning for sodomy. The introduction of the new legislation sparked international outcry and public criticism for the law’s clear violation of basic human rights, especially against Brunei’s local LGBTQ community.
The UN stated that the new penal code would ‘enshrine cruel and inhuman punishments’, countering Brunei’s international human rights obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which was ratified by Brunei in 2006. Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director also described the new penal code as ‘barbaric to the core and, imposing archaic punishments for acts that shouldn’t even be crimes’. International human rights organisations were not the only ones to criticise the new laws, with various celebrities, such as George Clooney and Elton John calling for the boycott of luxury hotels linked to Brunei and the Sultan, such as the Dorchester Hotel in London.
Since this public outcry, the Sultan has recently backtracked on enforcing his stricter Sharia laws by stating that those convicted of gay sex, adultery or rape will not be stoned to death after all. Despite this U-turn on Brunei’s policy, the country alongside other Middle Eastern countries still condemn homosexuality and marginalise their young LGBTQ communities. A sense of uncertainty for the future resides in this community for even talk of the new laws gives conservatives the power to discriminate against them.
So who is standing up for human rights, and more specifically, LGBTQ rights in Brunei itself?
The Brunei Project, an independent human rights initiative raising awareness about human rights in Brunei, was founded by Matthew Woolfe in May 2015. Up until this point, no ‘active society groups engaged in human rights advocacy in Brunei’. The project initially began as a social media platform for the promotion of human rights issues, aiming to be the voice of marginalised groups, particularly focusing on LGBTQ issues, freedom of speech and cultural and religious freedom. The project’s focus on LGBTQ rights has continued to grow as well as its media presence, especially with the recent backlash against the Sultan’s new Sharia laws.
Since Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah’s announcement of a moratorium on the use of the death penalty on the laws under the Syariah Penal Code, the Brunei Project has continued to condemn the leader’s clear violation of human rights and lack of respect for the country’s obligations to the UN. The project continues to call for a full repeal of these laws and for Brunei to meet international standards of human rights obligations, as to protect the country’s vulnerable communities. Whether or not this will happen in Brunei’s near future is up for debate, but the Sultan’s U-turn on his initial Sharia laws demonstrates that international public outcry, media criticism and the work of human rights organizations can have a huge impact on reversing backward and marginalising policies.
Brunei still has a long way to go and it is clear that the country could benefit further from the creation of more civil society groups, like that of the Brunei Project, to push the country towards equal rights.
Written by Chelsea Davey, MA student in Culture and Thought after 1945, IGDC Events & Communications Assistant