OPINION: Protests against Brunei’s Sharia Penal Code must look beyond just LGBT+ rights

by Anastasia Kyriacou | AidEx
Wednesday, 17 April 2019 15:48 GMT

General view of Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque during a mass prayers for the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in Bandar Seri Begawan March 13, 2014. REUTERS/Ahim Ran

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Brunei's new penal code also targets women, children, the economically disadvantaged and religious minorities

Anastasia Kyriacou is a public relations manager at AidEx, a platform for professionals in humanitarian aid and international development

Brunei, a nation of less than half a million people, has sparked an international furore following implementation of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which penalises homosexuality, abortion and adultery by stoning, in addition to whipping and amputation for theft and alcohol consumption.

Despite the code’s violation of multiple international human rights standards, which Brunei has ratified, its provisions came into force earlier this month.

Arguments in Muslim-majority countries vary and although many have joined the condemnation by human rights groups, some have supported this conservative interpretation of Islam.

U.N. agencies’ UNAIDS and UNFPA warned the new laws will significantly impede health and well-being in Brunei for the most vulnerable, as these “extreme and unjustified punishments will drive people underground out of reach of life-saving HIV treatment and prevention services”.

The new laws would also disproportionately impact women and create barriers to accessing health information and services, the agencies said.

Protests led by high-profile celebrities, global corporate and public boycotts, and Oxford University’s review of the Sultan’s honorary degree formed part of the global condemnation.

However, much of the disapproval focused heavily on the anti-gay penalties and has been criticised by some as “selective liberal outrage”.

Pang Khee Teik, editor of Malaysia-based LGBT+ platform Queer Lapis, recently said on Twitter that he is, “disturbed by this global trend of reporting which gives the impression that the killing of gay people is the only true crime worth the outrage”.

He argues the real problem is that of undermined democracy, because Sharia laws do not single out LGBT+ people alone, but all things considered un-Islamic.

“Such laws will disproportionately target socially vulnerable groups, including women, children, the economically disadvantaged, and religious minorities,” he tweeted.

Speaking to AidEx, Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell whose organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, led the London demonstration against the Sultan, said they highlighted the other brutal punishments the SPC entails and agreed that, “people who have ignored the other offences and punishments are mistaken and selective”.

He warned that the focus on LGBT+ rights by some campaigners, “makes it much easier for religious governments to garner public support for these barbaric penalties and much harder to build a broad local alliance against these cruel ISIS-style punishments”.

But whilst it is imperative for the United Nations to fulfil its role of issuing statements urging countries such as Brunei to revoke any laws that contradict international standards, how can we actually make a difference?

It is more effective to support the work of activists in the region, Teik said, than for a minority who can afford to boycott expensive hotels owned by the Sultan like the Dorchester in London, to “save a few dollars”.

Regional Coordinator for ASEAN SOGIE Caucus, Ryan Silverio told AidEx that external pressure from growing international attention may not force Brunei to amend its legislation.

But with the world watching, could it possibly influence the extent to which the penalties are enforced?

Whilst Tatchell believes governments have a role to play in suspending diplomatic, economic and military ties, he believes aid should not be stopped but rather switched from the state’s government institutions to organisations that uphold human rights. He does however emphasise that “change has to come from within”.

“It cannot be imposed by other countries. But international boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions may help pressure the regime to not enforce these new laws.”

Some might still insist that Brunei is a sovereign country and as such can implement the laws it wants, especially as it is ruled by an absolute monarch who is the sole decision maker.

But, no matter how big or small a nation, backwards legislation by a government will hurt its citizens, economy and reputation.

The international community has a responsibility to denounce violations of human rights and stress that inclusiveness is progress and governments who are not prepared to embrace this will face being left behind.