U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
WASHINGTON — Outrage over Brunei’s imposition of Sharia law sparked a celebrity boycott of Los Angeles hotels owned by the country’s sultan — but there’s been no similar outcry in Washington, where the Obama administration is pressing ahead with a high-profile trade deal that would include Brunei.
The agreement is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which also includes 10 other nations on both sides of the ocean. The threat of losing out on the agreement could provide far more serious leverage with Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah than driving his hotels out of business, which represent a small part of his vast fortune.
Yet key advocacy groups that helped publicize the hotel boycott, like the Human Rights Campaign and Feminist Majority, have not called for the deal to be halted or for Brunei to lose its seat at the table. And few of the senators who will have to ratify the agreement are ready to call for that, either.
“Boycott [the hotels] if you want to boycott, but if you really want to be strategic about what will harm Brunei’s economic interest, focus … on the TPP,” said John Sifton, Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocacy director. “The U.S. government can and should better use the leverage of this free trade agreement to get concessions on human rights issues — and if they can’t get concessions, they oughtn’t be signing an agreement.”
Sifton argued that injecting a focus on human rights into the TPP debate could also address concerns about other candidate countries, including Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore, which also have troubling human rights records. In many Malaysian states, for example, transwomen are routinely arrested under Sharia codes, and the country’s opposition leader is in jail after being convicted of sodomy charges he says are a political ploy to discredit him.
Spokespeople for the Human Rights Campaign, which sent out multiple press releases promoting the hotel boycott over the last two weeks, did not respond to multiple messages asking whether the group had a position on the agreement. Feminist Majority’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., referred inquiries to its Beverly Hills chapter, where spokesperson Stephanie Hallett said the group had not given more attention to the issue since organizing a press conference in front of the Beverly Hills Hotel last week.
“It was a crazy week with the press and everything but we’ve had other needs as far as the organization goes,” Hallett said. “So we’re still figuring out our next steps from there.”
This silence has been matched by Democratic members of the Senate, who have long been facing stiff pressure from organized labor to oppose the agreement that unions say will lower wages and labor standards.
While Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said, “I’ll be looking at Brunei, be looking at Vietnam, be looking at Malaysia and other countries to make significant progress” on their governance records before endorsing the deal in a brief interview on Tuesday, the comments of other senators suggested Brunei’s Sharia code hadn’t yet factored into the TPP debate.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin — who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over labor issues — told BuzzFeed, “We negotiate with China, I don’t know if they’re a hell of a lot better” than the countries in TPP. He said he will view this trade agreement “like I do others — What’s their position on child labor and laborers rights and environment?”
He did not mention Brunei’s Sharia code except when specifically asked about the stoning punishment for sodomy in a follow-up question.
“I’d be concerned about that too,” he said.
A State Department spokesman dismissed the suggestion that the Sharia code should be factored into the TPP negotiations, though he said the administration is “closely monitoring how new rules” in Brunei will be implemented. He noted that the United States already has “trade agreements with a number of Muslim countries that have some aspects of Sharia law, including Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Jordan.”
“We believe trade can be an effective way to broaden support for the universal values that Americans share, even as our trading partners have a wide variety of differences in their domestic legal systems,” he added.
The relative silence about Brunei’s Sharia code in the TPP debate could be broken in the coming days, as discussions are currently ongoing in labor circles to try to forge a coalition built on the dust-up over Brunei’s Sharia law. That’s according to Cleve Jones, the California LGBT and labor activist whose work on a long-running labor dispute involving the Dorchester Collection hotels helped spark the boycott last month.
“We are keeping together and growing a coalition in Los Angeles that includes all the groups who initially spoke out against [Brunei’s ownership of the hotels],” Jones said. He added that he “had a call into” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, but that it was not clear what role the group will play, if any.
But the loud protests over the Sharia code are making LGBT activists who work internationally increasingly uncomfortable. The campaign has been mounted with no input from activists inside the tiny nation, and the few sources international activists have been able to reach in the country have suggested they do not feel especially threatened by the law and do not think an international confrontation is helpful.
“According to my sources, they prefer quiet dialogue with their government officials rather than ‘aggressive actions,’” said Julie Dorf of the Council for Global Equality, which advocates for LGBT rights in U.S. foreign policy and includes the Human Rights Campaign among its institutional members. Dorf said that she also heard from sources in the country that suggested that the law could actually make it even harder to bring sodomy charges than it was under the sodomy law that was already on the books — the Sharia code requires four male witnesses to the act in order to convict, a standard of proof so high that it seems unlikely to ever be met.
It is also unclear whether the sultan has any intention of enforcing the capital punishments under the new law; Brunei has had an effective moratorium on carrying out the death penalty since 1957.
A loud push on this issue without input from people in Brunei is risky, Dorf said.
“With U.S. activism going forward blindly independent of the people of Brunei, I think we all have a problem on our hands,” Dorf said. “What I know from working in that region and knowing activists for many years is that going public with demonstrations and big loud activism without any connection to people on the ground who are fighting this fight is dangerous … first and foremost dangerous to the people there who may be subject to a very dangerous backlash and dangerous for your credibility as an activist.”
This concern was echoed by Graeme Reid, LGBT rights program director for Human Rights Watch. The campaign surrounding Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law leading up to the Olympics drew American LGBT rights organizations into the international arena, which requires a very different approach.
“I think it would be a mistake to apply the same tactics and strategies that work domestically to international work,” he said. Reid said the U.S. rhetoric that cast the Brunei code as an assault on LGBT rights could be especially problematic if it were to be picked up in Brunei, because it could make it harder to push back on a law that violates a wide range of human rights.
Brunei has long been an especially difficult place to find partners, said Jessica Stern, president of the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission, the oldest U.S.-based international LGBT rights group and part of a coalition of organizations in the region advocating LGBT rights inside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Brunei is a member.
“When I hear U.S.-based organizations starting to talk about LGBT rights in Brunei, I get very nervous, because there are no LGBT people in Brunei that we know of who are speaking [out] publicly — or privately — for that matter,” said Stern, noting that the region has some of the world’s most sophisticated and active LGBT activists.
“When you weigh in on another country’s political developments, social or legal, you have to make sure the strategies that you’re using are carefully vetted who are on the front line potentially experiencing harm,” Stern said. Before getting involved in a new country, Stern said, one of that group’s “guiding principles” is “learn the issue in depth — no knee-jerk responses. Ever.”