13:27, April 04 170 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-04 13:27:05
The Guardian view on Brunei and stoning: don’t leave it to celebrities to act

Brunei’s introduction of new laws allowing stoning for adultery and sex between men has sparked international outrage. Elton John and George Clooney’s calls for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by the tiny south-east Asian kingdom have grabbed the spotlight. The United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has condemned the “cruel and inhuman” measures, as have the EU, Australia and others.

The punishment is only one of many horrifying changes in a penal code which also covers apostasy, amputation as a punishment for theft and flogging for abortions. Lesbian sex is punishable by 40 strokes of the cane as well as jail. In some cases children who have reached puberty are subject to the same penalties as adults; younger ones may be flogged. The sharia code was first introduced in 2013, and was supposed to be enacted gradually; following an outcry the government did not bring forward its harshest elements until now. Many suspect that the impact of declining oil revenues on public spending has left Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, one of the longest-ruling absolute monarchs, keen to bolster support among conservative elements.

Though many have spoken out, Britain’s responsibilities are particularly clear. The countries retained strong security ties after Brunei gained independence in 1984. A garrison of around 2,000 British troops is stationed there. The Foreign Office minister Mark Field suggested in the Commons on Thursday that the very strength of the relationship allows the government to speak “always frankly”, if sometimes privately. What has been said behind closed doors remains there, of course – yet Mr Field’s public tone fell far short of that demanded by the shocking nature of these punishments. Appearing to speak more in sorrow than anger, he lamented them as in breach of international human rights laws. Brunei has not executed anyone in decades, and four witnesses or a confession are required for cases of adultery and gay sex – “a fairly tall ask”, claimed Mr Field. This is dangerously complacent. Confessions can be acquired more easily than he appears to think. Worst, as Sir Crispin Blunt pointed out, the government’s words were not accompanied by action.

Calls for the Commonwealth to sanction or even expel Brunei look more rhetorical than realistic, not least because most members criminalise gay sex, largely thanks to colonial-era laws. But the secretary general, Baroness Scotland, is right to point to the state’s commitments to human rights under the Commonwealth charter. Non-state actors such as multinational companies also have a role to play. But the British government must add Brunei to its list of human rights priority countries. It must do everything it can to support activists there, and to give protection to those fleeing in fear of these vile laws. And it must explore the options for using security ties as leverage. It cannot leave the task to celebrities.

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