The sultan of Brunei has been on the throne for 52 years, making him the second-longest reigning monarch in the world, after Queen Elizabeth II.
In Brunei – a rather traditional, deeply Muslim Southeast Asian country – the sultan is known for leading a decadent life.
Vanity Fair once dubbed Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his brother, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, “constant companions in hedonism.” They spend lavishly on luxury cars, yachts and real estate, and according to the magazine, “allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem the likes of which the world had never known.”
Now, Brunei’s sultan appears to have found religion.
He has implemented a harsh interpretation of Sharia – Islamic law – in his country, taking aim at LGBT people, women and even children with some of the world’s harshest penalties for homosexual conduct.
Under Brunei’s new laws, gay sex and adultery can result in death by stoning, and having an abortion is punishable by public flogging. Dressing in clothing associated with a different sex may incur a fine and imprisonment up to three months. Younger children can be whipped for these offenses.
Diversion from economic woes
These laws represent serious breaches of international human rights law, my field of academic expertise.
Thirty-six countries – including the United States, United Kingdom, Argentina and Australia – recently issued a joint statement expressing “profound dismay” at Brunei’s penal code, which the United Nations has deemed “cruel and unusual.”
Why is Brunei’s sultan suddenly so keen to enforce Sharia across this island nation of 430,000?
One of the main reasons may be plunging global oil prices. For the first time, the oil-rich nation of Brunei is grappling with economic crisis.
Other countries have similarly whipped up hatred against LGBT people to distract the public’s attention from economic crisis or corruption allegations.
The sultan may also be seeking to rehabilitate his reputation as a “party boy.”
“This is obviously not coming from a place of religious devotion, since the sultan himself is in violation of every single rule of Sharia you could possibly imagine,” religious scholar Reza Aslan told the New York Post in 2014, when the sultan first flagged his intention to impose strict Islamic law in Brunei.
Perhaps the Sultan thinks that implementing Sharia will enable him to leave a religious legacy that outweighs his decades of very public excess and indulgence.
Do boycotts work?
As a way of trying to get the Sultan to change his mind about imposing these harsh penalties within Brunei, many celebrities and gay rights advocates are calling for boycotts of the sultan’s international hotels and of Royal Brunei Airlines.
But evidence suggests that boycotts are not the most effective way to influence foreign governments.
For one, they can cause the offending government to harden its position to show it will not give in to foreign pressure. That can make it harder to work collaboratively with leaders of that country to actually improve the situation.
That’s what happened in Uganda in 2014, when President Yoweri Museveni introduced some of the word’s toughest anti-gay laws.
“I advise friends from the West not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the more they will lose,” he said. “Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country.”
This risk is compounded by the evident double standard of an international boycott of Brunei and the sultan’s businesses. Other countries that impose the death penalty for same-sex sexual conduct – including Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia – are not subjected to similar global condemnation.
Who can stop the sultan?
The United Nations may stand a better chance of curbing Brunei’s behavior.
Brunei’s human rights record will be reviewed by the U.N.‘s Human Rights Council next month, as part of a regular assessment called the Universal Periodic Review – a relatively new process described by the International Bar Association as “the most progressive arena for the protection of the LGBTI community internationally.”
Though the Universal Periodic Review has no power to enforce its recommendations, it has shown some success in advancing human rights in U.N. member countries. Its method is to foster dialogue with and between governments and civil society, create a plan for improving rights and closely monitoring progress.
Brunei’s allies and neighbors are also well placed to put pressure on the sultan.
Research has found that if a state is criticized by one of its strategic partners, it is more likely to accept that criticism than if it comes from a state with which it has fewer ties.
Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary association of 53 sovereign states, most of them former British colonies. Its biannual Heads of Government Meeting, set to take place in Rwanda next year, is a potential forum for meaningful dialogue about the state of LGBTQ rights across the Commonwealth of Nations, since Brunei is one of 35 Commonwealth countries that still criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct.
If negotiations with Brunei are unsuccessful, the Commonwealth of Nations can take the powerful step of suspending its membership. That would prevent Brunei from participating in group meetings and events – including the popular Commonwealth Games, which have been described as “sport with a social conscience.”
This step was previously taken in response to grave human rights violations committed by Fiji, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
Over 100 LGBTQ and human rights groups from Southeast Asia have also called on the Association of South East Asian Nations – ASEAN, a regional intergovernmental organization – to take a hard line against member state Brunei, saying its new laws “legitimize violence.”
But ASEAN’s non-binding 2012 declaration of human rights – which does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and contains imprecise language that significantly dilutes its power – seems unlikely to demand an institutional response.
Does the sultan mean it?
There is concern that Brunei’s imposition of hard-line Sharia will embolden its Muslim majority neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia, to follow suit.
Malaysia already applies Islamic law in some states. Last September, two women found guilty of attempting to have sex were sentenced to be, and were, caned.
Brunei, it’s important to note, has not actually used the death penalty since 1957.
An optimist could conclude that the new laws are mostly symbolic – designed to beef up the sultan’s Islamic credentials and garner favor with other Muslim countries to boost trade and tourism.
That interpretation, however, is unlikely to diminish the fear of the vulnerable minorities targeted by Brunei’s Sharia laws.
This article is an updated version of an article originally published on April 11, 2019 in The Conversation Australia.