Trade Partner, Brunei’s Penal Code Promises to Flog Women, LGBT Persons

By Corinne Schwarz, NOW Government Relations Intern

On May 1, Brunei, a small country of about 415,000 people neighboring Malaysia, implemented a series of brutal laws targeting women and members of the LGBT community. This strict Taliban-like penal code infringes upon the basic human rights of those who do not conform to its specific gender norms. Under the monarchy of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, those who wear “indecent clothing,” become pregnant outside of marriage, have abortions, commit “adultery” or identify as members of the LGBT community are all at risk in this new three-phase system of punitive laws. Punishments range from fines and prison sentences to flogging, corporal punishment and stoning to death.

In April, the U.N. issued a statement decrying this gross violation of international law and international human rights, but Brunei has not halted its plans to roll out all phases of legislation by 2015. Given Brunei’s continuing negotiations with the United States on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), these new laws are particularly troubling for activists and organizations committed to promoting gender equity and LGBT rights.

Echoing this global outcry, the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) has spearheaded a national effort against Brunei’s penal code by urging women’s rights organizations to sign on to a letter in circulation to President Obama. The letter urges the President to ensure the removal of Brunei from negotiations on the prospective TPP with the United States or to suspend TPP talks until Brunei revokes its new penal code.  Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) is sending around a similar letter for members of Congress to sign. LGBT rights groups have also joined these efforts.

The TPP is a highly-secretive trade agreement referred to by some as “NAFTA on steroids.” Details of the proposed pact with Canada and ten Asian-Pacific nations have not been made public yet. However, Wikileaks released several sections dealing with intellectual property rights and environment protection, which one critic said lacks meaningful enforcement mechanisms. At some point, the agreement will be presented to Congress for a so-called “fast-track” approval, or an up or down (yay or nay?) vote with no amendments permitted.

The Office of the United States Trade Representative says that the TPP “incorporates new elements reflecting our values and priorities.” Given the importance of women’s rights and LGBT rights in the 21st century, this claim doesn’t seem to align with Brunei’s penal code.

According to Lydia DePillis of the Washington Post, the TPP would “eliminate tariffs on goods and services, tear down a host of non-tariff barriers and harmonize all sorts of regulations.” If the TPP is signed into agreement, the U.S. will have free trade relationships with Singapore, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Japan and Brunei. However, this agreement would not allow the U.S. to impose economic sanctions against countries whose policies radically discriminate against certain groups, like in Brunei.

According to the AFL-CIO, the TPP has the potential to jeopardize union membership and bargaining rights, move more jobs overseas, increase lawsuits against developing countries, and reduce product and environmental safety standards. As Lori Wallach writes in The Nation, the TPP is a Trojan Horse, instituting “policies that could not survive public scrutiny.” The TPP may lead to problems like higher prices for pharmaceuticals and increased restriction for online copyright policies, but it downplays these issues with buzzwords such as “lower tariffs” and “free trade.”

Based on the information leaked by Wikileaks, we know women workers are left especially vulnerable. As Dean Baker explains, “The provisions in the agreement will overrule measures passed by national, state and local legislative bodies, in effect stripping democratically elected local officials of much of their authority.” While women workers might be protected from wage theft, unsafe working conditions and inaccessible child care within their own jurisdictions, they would be without critical recourses under the TPP. The Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law, and Development believes the TPP would disproportionately impact the two-thirds of women globally who work in “vulnerable employment,” with low benefits and limited job security.

Beyond a sign on letter, a variety of women’s rights organizations have undertaken efforts to oppose U.S. businesses controlled by the Sultan of Brunei. For example,  FMF moved their annual Global Women’s Rights Awards from the Beverly Hills Hotel, operated by the Sultan-controlled Brunei Investment Agency. Other organizations should follow their lead in advocating against supporting businesses with a traceable link to Brunei’s harsh penal code.

While the TPP is currently in the hands of U.S. negotiators and business interests, we must step forward and pressure our government for a trade agreement that is beneficial for U.S. business while also requiring that partner nations embrace international human rights standards. It should  assure fair labor practices and advance environmental protection as well. At this particular juncture, though, U.S. leaders must use the leverage that TPP talks offer to push Brunei to repeal these unrelenting new laws in its penal code.

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