New laws in small countries rarely make big headlines.
Ever since Brunei gained independence in 1984, its legislation has been of little interest to the rest of the world. But legislation passed by this former British colony in northern Borneo (population c. 400,000) has suddenly become a global news story. Everything changed on 3rd April 2019 when Brunei – official name: the Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace – introduced laws that will punish homosexual sex with the death sentence.
Those found guilty will be stoned to death, according to a new penal code based on Sharia law while the code also provides for amputation of hands and feet for theft, and whipping for adultery and drinking alcohol. Penalties will apply only to Muslims, who comprise roughly two-thirds of Brunei’s population, leaving the country’s Buddhists (13%) and Christians (10%) theoretically immune from their scope.
‘The Sharia Law, apart from criminalising and deterring acts that are against the teachings of Islam, also aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race,’ according to an official statement. The new law was originally announced in 2014 by Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s Sultan who combines his role as head of state and absolute monarch with being Prime Minister as well. Implementation was quietly announced on the Brunei attorney general’s website, which stated: “The Sultan does not expect other people to accept and agree with it, but that it would suffice if they just respect the nation in the same way that it also respects them.”
In part because the Sultan of Brunei is one of the world’s wealthiest men, a friend of Britain’s royal family, with a high personal profile and myriad overseas investments, the announcement made global headlines. These have been further fuelled by a sharp celebrity response: George Clooney and Sir Elton John called for a boycott of luxury hotels with links to Brunei, including the Dorchester Collection in London, Paris, Milan, Rome and Los Angeles, which are owned by the Brunei Investment Agency.
Several governments, including the US and UK, have also expressed concern, although they have stopped short of officially condemning the move. The State Department said that is “concerned” by Brunei’s decision. “We strongly oppose human rights violations and abuses against LGBTI persons, including violence,” they Department said in a statement, adding that “some of the punishments in the law appear inconsistent with international human rights obligations.” Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt, UK secretary of state for international development posted on Twitter: “No one should face the death penalty because of who they love. Brunei’s decision is barbaric and the UK stands with the LGBT+ community and those who defend their rights.”
Mixing foreign policy and the death penalty can create a toxic cocktail for many western governments, not least the United Kingdom which is so keen to be making and maintaining international friendships in a post Brexit world. While the barbaric acts of Islamic State, including summary executions carried out under Sharia Law, have been uniformly and rightly condemned by governments everywhere, executions carried out by officially recognised governments in surrounding countries for identical alleged offences have not. So far this year, 45 people have been publicly beheaded in Saudi Arabia, for example. So why no complaints? In short, because such countries are strategic allies, important trading partners, or both.
According to Amnesty International, 2,591 death sentences were recorded in 53 countries in 2017 with China named as the ‘world’s top executioner’. True, the number executed in China has fallen significantly in recent years: up to 2,000 people were estimated to have been executed there last year versus 12,000 in 2002. But China recently rejected recommendations made by the 2018 United Nations Universal Periodic Review in relation to capital punishment and other human rights matters. They labelled them “politically biased or untruthful.”
Lethal injection and shooting are the only execution methods officially approved by China’s Criminal Procedure Law of 1996. Shooting was discontinued in 2010 following a People’s Supreme Court ruling which held that lethal injection is more humane as a form of execution than shooting. Pour encourager les autres, local courts still pass the death sentence before thousands of onlookers in football stadiums. Those found guilty of offences ranging from murder to robbery and drug-related crimes are then taken away for execution.
China may be by far the biggest executioner, but it is not alone. Figures for 2017 show that executions took place in many countries: 507 people were executed in Iran, 146 in Saudi Arabia, 125 in Iraq, 60 in Pakistan, 30 in Egypt, 24 in Somalia, 23 in the United States, 15 in Jordan, 8 in Singapore, 7 in Kuwait, 6 in Bangladesh, 6 in Gaza (Palestine), 5 in Afghanistan, 4 in South Sudan, 4 in Malaysia, 4 in Japan, 3 in Bahrain, 2 in Belarus, 2 in Yemen, and one in the UAE. Globally, of the 195 UN states, 55 countries retain the death penalty.
There are many arguments against capital punishment – moral, legal and practical – which may help to diminish its use across most of those countries where it is retained as an option on the statute book. But for Britain, or indeed any other country, to predicate its foreign policy relationships based on whether individual countries maintain the death penalty is practically impossible. Trade trumps everything.
Outside Europe, the UK’s top two export markets are the US and China. Among other countries in the top ten, only Canada (death penalty abolished 1976), and Hong Kong (abolished 1993) no longer have it in place while South Korea, Japan, Singapore, India, the UAE (3rd largest export market) and Saudi Arabia (5th largest export market) still do.
Lawyers might point to the critical differences in due process between say the US and Singapore on the one hand, where sophisticated independent judges and appeal mechanisms prevail, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other, where they do not. Important as they are, such distinctions ignore the principle that everyone has an inalienable human right to life and execution violates that right. In practical terms, it also does not allow for mistake. According to Amnesty International data, 130 people sentenced to death in the US since 1973 have subsequently had their convictions and been released from death row.
Understandably, the UK government has been pretty silent on the issue of capital punishment among some of its biggest trading partners such as China, the US or Saudi Arabia. The ubiquitous outrage caused by Brunei’s introduction of capital punishment is equally understandable.
Ideally, it should also help to bring the wider issue into focus in every country which implements the death penalty, whatever the offence or system of law used to justify it.
That prospect, however, seems remote. Until we are consistent in condemning capital punishment in every country and for ever crime, selecting Brunei for specific criticism does very little to address the much wider problem.
While it may be valid for George Clooney and Sir Elton John to confine their criticisms to Brunei and advocate a hotel boycott, the same does not apply to government ministers. A virtue signalling Tweet is simply not good enough.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.