An intriguing aspect of Brunei’s barbarous Shariah laws is that if they were to be really enforced, a few of the sultan’s ridiculously wealthy, jet-setting kin would be leading candidates for death by stoning. Adultery is one of the crimes for which the archaic penalty is prescribed under the stern laws that went into effect on April 3 — along with sex between men, abortion and rape — and tabloids around the world have accumulated plenty of evidence against some Bruneian royals.
Such royal hypocrisy may seem to be the norm among autocratic rulers sitting atop oceans of oil who place no limits on their own dissolute lifestyles and yet impose cruel Islamic law on their subjects. And tiny Brunei, a country roughly the size of Delaware that shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia, might not seem worth getting worked up about.
Yet it is, for several reasons. First is that “this is the way we do it” is no longer a viable excuse for cruelty and barbarism anywhere. The world has gone way past times when witches were burned, homosexuals castrated or adulterers branded, and Brunei has signed (but not yet ratified) the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Brunei’s cruel, inhuman and degrading penalties are not a relic of history, like the sodomy laws that stayed on the books of American states well into the 20th century, but the whim of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, 72, who has ruled the Lilliputian nation since 1967 and ranks among the most ludicrously wealthy people on earth. He has long pushed his predominantly Muslim nation toward a conservative and restrictive form of Islam, and he first announced the new penalties — which, in addition to death by stoning for gay male sex, include amputation for theft and 40 lashes for lesbian sex — six years ago.
An international outcry at that time prompted him to delay the laws. A similar outcry has accompanied their latest introduction: The United States, the European Union, Australia and others, as well as the United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, have all denounced the penalties, and celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John, Billie Jean King and Ellen DeGeneres called for a boycott of luxury hotels owned by Brunei, which include the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, the Dorchester in London and the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris.
Besides the barbarity of the penalties, there is the danger that the law could nudge neighboring Islamic giants Malaysia and Indonesia toward tightening their own national or regional versions of Shariah laws targeting homosexuals. Conservative Muslim politicians in both countries were quick to voice their support for Brunei’s law. Beyond that, there is the fact that Sultan Hassanal enjoys his absolute dominion and his obscene treasure, including a gold-plated Rolls-Royce and a 1,788-room palace, because the world outside buys his oil. That gives his clients — including Britain, Brunei’s former colonial master — a measure of responsibility and leverage.
That celebrities are taking action is good, but governments and multinationals that do business with the wealthy sultanate have an obligation to look for ways to persuade Sultan Hassanal and other beneficiaries of Brunei’s oil riches that they best quickly bring their laws into compliance with their human rights obligations and abandon vicious punishments for blameless behavior.