With the Beverly Hills City Council condemning the Sultan of Brunei for introducing Sharia Law in the country, and a mass celebrity-led exodus from the Sultan’s Beverly Hills Hotel, the issue has come to the forefront of the news in recent days. The new criminal law will be implemented in three phases, with fines and jail terms given for pregnancies outside marriage and failure to attend Friday prayers in the first phase; whipping and the amputation of limbs for crimes such as theft and alcohol consumption in the second phase; and in the final phase – to be implemented late next year – the death penalty for rape, adultery, sodomy and extramarital relations. The revised code stipulates stoning as the specific method of execution.
Whilst highlighting the negative implications that the implementation of Sharia Law has for human rights is a positive step, the fact-based discussion has been side-lined by headline-catching protests and calls for divestment. Pictures of protestors holding signs reading ‘Stop the Taliban-like laws’ and ‘#StoptheSultan’ convey a deep lack of knowledge of the nuances of the thought structures behind Sharia Law (the Taliban and Brunei are associated with different schools of Sharia), which can damage the debate and alienate many who are Muslim but who condone neither the strict implementation of Sharia law, nor terrorism.
The penal code violates a number of human rights – including the right to privacy, equality before the law, and to freedom from arbitrary arrest, with stoning to death constituting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. As such it is deserving of the highest criticism, which has already been seen from a wide array of individuals and organisations concerned about the implications for women and LGBTI individuals of the implementation of Sharia law.
As a member of the Commonwealth, Brunei is a signatory to the Commonwealth Charter, which upholds the values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Purna Sen, the former Head of the Human Rights Unit at the Commonwealth Secretariat, stated in an article in the Huffington Post, that ‘the Commonwealth should be ashamed of its failure to uphold its own values’, asking ‘just how far our so-called “friends” have to go before there is any kind of meaningful price to be paid.’
The Royal Commonwealth Society joins these voices in questioning why a Commonwealth member state would introduce these laws in contravention of the Charter of the Commonwealth, of which it is a signatory. These laws are anti-democratic, and a gross violation of human rights. However, it is also crucial to point out that the reason that the Sultan of Brunei was able to enact these laws is because Brunei is an absolute monarchy, where elections have not been held since 1962. This contravenes the first value set out in the Commonwealth Charter – democracy. The Sultan of Brunei is head of state, prime minister, finance minister and defence minister. He is assisted in his role by five councils, all of whom he appoints. Furthermore, the Sultan has ruled under emergency decree since 1984.
The Commonwealth is a group of nations bound by common principles and values including democratic freedoms, rule of law and human rights. In response to the new penal code, we strongly suggest that the issue of Sharia Law and this move by Brunei be put on the agenda for the next meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) for a wider group to consider the ramifications for Commonwealth membership.