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International outcry over Brunei revision of penal statutes

5 April 2019

5 April 2019

On April 3, a revision of the penal code entered into force in the Kingdom of Brunei-Darussalam, foreseeing death by stoning as the sole legal punishment for gay and lesbian sex, adultery, and abortion. The Sharia-inspired code, which entry into force had been postponed for four years due to mounting international pressure, has come under renewed criticism from governments and NGOs around the world.

The new law testifies to the conservative turn the country has taken in recent years under Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has endeavored to make his nation more culturally in line with Islamic values. Even though the sharia penal code came into being in 2014, it took the government a number of years to assess on the exact implementation thereof – including, crucially, on the issue of enforcement for non-Muslims. 

In a statement by the EEAS, the EU condemned those aspects in the revised penal code which amount to “torture, acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment which are prohibited by the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” to which Brunei is a party.

Human Rights Watch struck a similar tone, qualifying the decision as “barbaric to the core, imposing archaic punishments for acts that should not even be crimes.” Amnesty International similarly pointed out that the new penal code sits at great unease with the obligations under public international law.

A number of civil society groups and MPs in the United Kingdom have called for Brunei to revoke the new code – suggesting that if not then Brunei be expelled from the Commonwealth, of which it has been a full member since 1984. On 4 April, UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field condemned the new code, describing it as “shocking and shameful, but […] also deeply sad.”  

The US State Department put up a statement on 2 April urging Brunei to abide by its obligations under international human rights law and “to ratify and fully implement the UN Convention against Torture”. A response from ASEAN seems improbable, with Malaysia and Indonesia both likely to oppose a collective statement condemning the revised code. 

Several celebrities including George Clooney and Elton John have called for a boycott of hotels owned by the Sultan including the Dorchester in London and the Beverly Hills hotel in Los Angeles.

A number of analysts have pointed out that the enforcement of the new legal code remains to be seen, as Brunei has kept a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 1957 (even though a death sentence was issued as recently as last year). As such, the EU expects “Brunei-Darussalam to maintain its de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty.” Experts also assess that the motive for introducing the new legal code now is due to the worsening economic situation in Brunei and the Sultan’s need to shore up his conservative Muslim supporters.