The US Response to the Sultan of Brunei’s Human Rights Violations

Written by: Thomas Quinn

Brunei is a small Southeast Asian country bordering the South China Sea with a population of 450 thousand people and a landmass smaller than the size of Delaware. Its per capita GDP ranks it as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the monarch of the country lives an extravagant lifestyle. The small state typically gains attention on the world stage for their rich oil supply. Recently, however, it has attracted international interest for a different reason.

On April 3rd, the third stage of Brunei’s penal code came into effect. Its strict punishments of death by stoning for homosexual and adulterous acts, 40 lashes from a whip for lesbian acts, and chopping off a hand for first time theft offenders have been met with outrage around world. The intention of enforcing a series of traditional Sharia laws was announced in 2014 by the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, and have been slowly implemented in the years since.

Following the Sultan’s announcement, many prominent figures and state governments around the world were quick to voice concern over the human rights violations inherent in the penal codes.

In an official statement from the US State Department, a spokesperson said the department is “concerned” with the new laws and that “some of the punishments in the law appear inconsistent with international human rights obligations.” The statement continued, “we strongly oppose human rights violations and abuses against LGBTI persons, including violence, the criminalization of LGBTI status or conduct, and serious forms of discrimination.”

United States actor George Clooney authored an opinion article for Deadline where he called for a boycott of the Sultan’s luxury hotels across the world, and celebrities Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John were quick to support Clooney’s boycott. These properties, all a part of the Dorchester Collection are located in the UK, US, France, and Italy. The illustrious Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles is among those on the list. In London, the Sultan is an owner of many high-priced hotels including the Dorchester and 45 Park Place. These properties combined generated 347 million euros, approximately 390 million USD, in untaxed revenue according to its declared earnings in 2017.

Brunei responded to criticism in an official statement from their website, stating the Sultan “does not expect other people to accept and agree with it, but that it would suffice if they just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them.”

Calls for sovereignty in the name of religious freedom are disputed by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. Bachelet stated, “Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion as well as of religious minorities and non-believers.” Bachelet continued, “Human rights and faith are not opposing forces – indeed, it is human interpretation that creates tensions. It is vital that the government, religious authorities and a wide range of civil society actors work jointly to uphold human dignity and equality for all.”

Claims of hypocrisy are echoing across the world as the Sultan, one of the world’s richest men, lives his incredibly opulent and often nefarious lifestyle. According to a 2010 Vanity Fair article detailing the lifestyles of royalty in Brunei, the Sultan and his brother “left their multiple spouses and scores of children in their palaces while they allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find.” The Sultan’s family also displays their wealth through extravagant homes and parties; the Sultan’s youngest brother, Jefri, named one of his yachts Tits with the tender boats named Nipple 1 and Nipple 2.

Members of the LGBTQ community in Brunei were cautious of announcing their identity prior to these laws. Now that they are going into effect, a 23-year-old Bruneian told the Associated Press “we feel even smaller and the ones who could potentially oppress us have more opportunity to harass us to say and do what they want.”

As the world attempts to continue moving forward following the announcement, companies around the world are already beginning to halt the business dealings with Brunei as they believe that the injury to their reputation is not worth the potential monetary gains. However, some in the business industry look to Saudi Arabia as a recent example. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi investors shied away from the Kingdom. After the news cycles had ended, they began to reinvest. 

Laws regarding homosexuality and adultery are difficult to enforce, and the last execution was carried out in 1957. Still, they set a dangerous precedent for the future in both Brunei and neighboring countries.

The United States has long held the mantle as the leaders of the free world, and now it is time to prove that the mantle is in the right hands. The Sultan’s oppressive actions need to be met with more than just “concern” from the State Department. Often times blanket sanctions on a country result in damaging the working class of that same state and not the leaders, as was intended. Instead, the Trump Administration needs to apply pressure through smart sanctions on the Sultan and his businesses. Action would forbid American companies from doing business with the Sultan even after the spotlight on his regime dims, accounting for the precedent set in Saudi Arabia. 

It is time to show the unelected leader that he cannot continue to oppress his people in the name of religion, especially when his and his family’s actions challenge the scope of the same laws he is attempting to enforce. The Americans and Europeans who work at the individual hotels in their respective countries are likely good, hard working people. Still, the United States government cannot stand idly-by as their citizens unintentionally line the pockets of an oppressive monarch.