Brunei, a nation populated by less than half a million, has sparked international furore following implementation of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC) by the country’s Sultan, 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 plenty have joined the condemnation by human rights groups, some have supported this conservative interpretation of Islam.

UN agencies UNAIDS and UNFPA warned the new laws will significantly impede health and wellbeing there 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’, and also disproportionately impact women and create barriers to accessing health information and services.

Protests led by high-profile celebrities, global corporate and public boycotts, and Oxford University’s review of the Sultan’s honorary degree were all part of the condemnation sparked worldwide. Much of the disapproval that erupted however focused heavily on the anti-gay penalties, which have been criticised by some as ‘selective liberal outrage’.

Editor of Malaysia-based LGBTIQ+ platform Queer Lapis, Pang Khee Teik says 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 just single out LGBT people, but are generally considered un-Islamic. He adds:

‘Such laws will disproportionately target socially vulnerable groups, including women, children, the economically disadvantaged, and religious minorities’.

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’.

The primary concern, Tatchell remarks is how Brunei, a country with no previous history of such Islamist extremism, has embraced a penal code like this in the twenty-first century for the first time.

How should the world respond?

Whilst it is imperative for the UN to fulfil its role of issuing statements urging nations 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, says Teik, than for a minority who can afford to boycott expensive hotels owned by the Sultan like the Dorchester, to ‘save a few dollars’.

Regional Coordinator for ASEAN SOGIE Caucus 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?

Silverio believes part of the solution requires groups around the world to create more spaces for forward-thinking Muslim scholars and Muslim Queer activists who can promote progressive interpretations of Islam. He observes the, ‘alarming use of anti-LGBT narrative to fuel radicalisation of people, especially youth’, and says we must ‘deflate this LGBT-centric attitude and highlight how extremism itself will cast a dark shadow to many of us who uphold human rights’.

Reiterating the anti-democratic aspect, Silverio highlights concerns over the extent to which Brunei’s Sharia law has bestowed so much authoritarian power onto the Sultan as the state’s religious leader.

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.

This article was originally published by AidEx Voices.

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