Today, the tiny oil-rich State of Brunei, home to just 400,000 people, went ahead with the introduction of the latest wave of tough new Sharia-based laws that makes homosexuality punishable to death by stoning. Brunei enshrined the punishment into law on Wednesday despite a groundswell of criticism from international human rights groups and celebrities including George Clooney and Sir Elton John.
The newly-implemented sections of Brunei’s Darussalam Syariah Penal Code, which is based on a hardline interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, also makes adultery punishable by stoning to death in public. Even minor crimes such as theft now attract barbaric new punishments, including the amputation of body parts. Children are not exempt from the punishments.
The law was first proposed in 2014 but has only just come into force as the country slowly moves to a more strict interpretation of Islamic teachings. The former British-colony has clamped down on the celebration of Christianity as it imposes Islam across society – Religious police were even said to be forcing shops to take down Christmas tree’s last year.
Progressively introduced over the last few years, the first offences covered by the legislation – such as cross-dressing or Muslims failing to attend Friday prayers – only attracted penalties such as fines or imprisonment.
“To legalise such cruel and inhuman penalties is appaling of itself,” commented Rachel Chhoa-Howard, of Amnesty International.
“Some of the potential ‘offences’ should not even be deemed crimes at all, including consensual sex between adults of the same gender,” she continued. “The international community must urgently condemn Brunei’s move to put these cruel penalties into practice.”
Hollywood actor George Clooney, who is married to prominent Human Rights lawyer Amal Clooney, led calls to boycott the ultra-luxe Dorchester Collection group of hotels which includes the namesake Dorchester Hotel in London, as well as eight other properties including the Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles because they are owned by the government of Brunei through the State-controlled Brunei Investment Agency.
A number of other A-list celebrities have thrown their weight behind the boycott, including Sir Elton John who said he commended Clooney for “taking a stand against the anti-gay discrimination and bigotry taking place in the nation of Brunei.”
Sir Elton continued: “Our hearts go out to the good, hardworking employees of properties owned by the Sultan of Brunei, many of whom we know to be gay.”
Attention has now turned to other businesses owned by the government of Brunei – including the country’s State-controlled airline, Royal Brunei Airlines. The carrier may be a relatively minor player with just 14 aircraft, including five Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners but it’s attracted a loyal following after becoming known as one of the cheapest ways to fly between Australia and Europe.
Human rights groups in Australia, however, are now calling on the Minister for Transport, Michael McCormack to revoke Royal Brunei’s landing rights in Australia, citing the danger that the airline poses to LGBTQ passengers. An update on the Australian government’s Smart Traveller website recently issued a travel advisory warning passengers that the laws apply to Brunei-registered aircraft.
Virgin Australia has taken the decision to revoke its staff travel agreement with Royal Brunei, although Qantas which also has a similar agreement has so far declined to comment on the matter.
So, should savvy travellers also be boycotting Royal Brunei Airlines in the same way that the ultra-elite are being urged to boycott the country’s luxury hotel collection? This is the bit where things get complicated because at what point do you draw the line?
Take, for example, Brian Kelly, the owner of travel website The Points Guy, who has joined the growing number of wealthy Dorchester Collection customers who have decided to boycott the hotel group. Despite his stance on this matter, Kelly frequently flies with the UAE-based Emirates and his website recently named the government-owned airline as having the best First Class experience.
Yet, according to Detained in Dubai, homosexuality in the UAE is still illegal and the punishment can range from 10 years in prison to fines, deportation and even the death penalty. Human Rights Watch claims the UAE “arbitrarily detains and in some cases forcibly disappears individuals who criticize the authorities” and Amnesty International says the UAE has failed to take steps to end torture and other ill-treatment of prisoners.
As part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting a proxy war in Yemen, the UAE has also been accused of committing possible war crimes. Why no boycott of businesses owned by the UAE then?
That’s not to say that taking an ethical stance on Brunei’s barbaric new laws isn’t the right thing to do but this just goes to show that’s it’s incredibly difficult to call out one regimen without questioning whether all the other businesses we hand our money to are also just as deserving of a boycott.
And while we’ve used the United Arab Emirates as an example, why end there? Should we extend our boycott to Chinese airlines because of the country’s treatment of Uighur Muslims or the apparent atrocities it has committed in Tibet?
Like so many boycotts, taking a stance against Brunei will only work if consumers are actually willing to inconvenience themselves for the sake of their political beliefs. But will enough people pay more for an alternative ticket with a different airline?