Brunei's Sharia Law Will Be Rewarded by Obama's Fast-Track Trade Deal

President Barack Obama, right, meets with Brunei?s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, during their meeting in the Oval Office of
President Barack Obama, right, meets with Brunei?s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, left, during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2013.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Boycotts and protests of the famed Beverly Hills Hotel have shined a bright light on the oil-rich nation of Brunei's recent imposition of Sharia law, a brutal criminal code that now includes amputations and floggings for some offenses and the stoning to death of known gays, lesbians, transgender people and others, as homosexuality and adultery are now considered crimes that should be punished by a torturous execution.

The sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, who implemented Sharia law himself, owns the Dorchester Collection of hotels, which includes the Beverly Hills Hotel, long a favorite of Hollywood stars. This week Jay Leno protested outside the hotel with the Feminist Majority Foundation, which moved its Global Women's Rights Awards from the hotel. Gill Action's Political OutGiving conference, focused on LGBT rights, moved its conference last month. Ellen DeGeneres called for a boycott. Virgin CEO Richard Branson tweeted on Saturday, "No @Virgin employee, nor our family, will stay at Dorchester Hotels until the Sultan abides by basic human rights."

But for the U.S., a far more abhorrent connection with the sultan than a few hotels is the trade pact with Brunei (and other Pacific nations), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which President Obama has been doggedly pursuing since 2009. As noted by Curtis Ellis of the American Jobs Alliance, "on the very day Brunei was phasing in Sharia law, Obama's chief trade negotiator Michael Froman was on Capitol Hill selling the TransPacific Partnership, which would bind the U.S. to Brunei and give the Islamic Sultanate special economic privileges."

Labor unions and others are concerned that the pact would harm American workers and exempt foreign companies and governments from environmental standards and allow them to bypass American courts. Nobel prize-wining economist Joseph Stiglitz warns of a "real risk it will benefit the wealthiest sliver of the American and global elite at the expense of everyone else."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) has expressed concern over the secrecy surrounding the trade agreement, which we only know anything about via leaked documents that have shown how corporations and governments will be able to overrule laws. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups have warned about the TPP giving privileges not just to Brunei but to Malaysia, which also has vicious laws criminalizing homosexuality, and Vietnam, which has been accused of human rights abuses. Both countries are also among the 12 seeking inclusion in the pact, including New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

A Malaysian AIDS group helped organize a demonstration in February in which protestors dressed as "zombies" at a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall, protesting the impact that the TTP would have on the price of drugs to treat HIV and other diseases. In New Zealand in late March, 15 protests occurred across the country, with thousands of people turning out in Auckland. In the U.S., unions have spoken out, and bipartisan opposition seems strong in Congress, which might forestall giving the president authority on the pact before the midterm elections. But the White House has been adamant about getting this trade deal done. It was the major priority of President Obama's visit to East Asia two weeks ago.

Right now it will take international pressure and shaming to convince Brunei to reverse itself. It was bad enough that the U.S. reaction to Nigeria's imposition of harsh punishments for homosexuality earlier this year was too little too late. As the AP reported, international activists noted that the U.S.'s "quiet diplomacy" emboldened President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda to finally move ahead with his country's own brutal law punishing homosexuality with life in prison, having seen Nigeria get away with its actions relatively unscathed.

On his East Asia trip, President Obama became the first U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson to visit Malaysia, which has laws against homosexuality with sentences that could include corporal punishment such as whippings. Obama mentioned nothing of that and only seemed intent on securing deeper economic ties and getting the trade pact finalized throughout the region. Rewarding Brunei, the first East Asian nation to follow in the footsteps of Taliban-era Afghanistan by stoning gays to death, will send a grotesque message to the world.

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