Global fury at Brunei’s ‘inhuman’ anti-gay law

Despot: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has ruled over Brunei for 51 years. © Getty

Under new laws introduced today in the small Islamic kingdom, gay men face being stoned to death. The international community has condemned the move as “barbaric” and “abhorrent”.

It is a gruesome punishment that ought to be consigned to the Middle Ages. And yet from today, LGBT people in the kingdom of Brunei could be stoned to death under new anti-sodomy laws. The penalty will also apply to adultery.

The small kingdom of 400,000 people first adopted strict Sharia law in 2014, but the measures have been introduced gradually. Other brutal new changes include cutting the right hand off anyone caught stealing, or their left foot for a second offence.

There is an atmosphere of terror among Brunei’s LGBT community. “It’s not something that a human should suffer,” said a young gay man who is considering fleeing the country.

Condemnation has poured in from across the globe.

UK International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt called the law “barbaric”, while the US State Department said it strongly opposes “human rights violations and abuses against LGBTI persons”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations condemned the “cruel and inhuman punishments”.

“Brunei must immediately halt its plans to implement these vicious punishments,” demanded human rights charity Amnesty International.

But the kingdom is not backing down.

“Like all other independent countries, (Brunei) enforces its own rule of law,” said the government.

So what can be done? Actor George Clooney and musician Elton John have proposed a boycott of nine hotels with links to Brunei, including The Dorchester in London.

“Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens?” Clooney wrote in Deadline.

But the actor was accused of “tokenism” by US TV host Bill Maher. “What about Saudi Arabia? If you really want to get back at them, stop driving or using oil,” he said.

Homosexuality is punishable by torture and death in Saudi Arabia, which has one of the world’s worst human rights records. Public beheadings are regularly carried out in the streets.

Nevertheless, the regressive kingdom signed £38 billion worth of new trade deals in December with companies from the US and Japan. UK trade with Saudi Arabia is worth over £6 billion a year.

Brute force

What can the free world do to stop Brunei? The kingdom has shown it will not respond to mere words, and the West has recoiled from military intervention, fearing a spiral of chaos and violence since the Iraq war. Could economic sanctions help? Perhaps harsh ones, as in Apartheid-era South Africa. But such measures often end up impoverishing civilians rather than punishing regimes.

Why is Brunei being singled out? The West has tolerated Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses for decades in exchange for lucrative oil and weapons sales. Should the West stop trading with every country accused of abuses? Is taking a stand worth the economic risk?

You Decide

  1. What should the UK do about Brunei’s human rights abuses?
  2. Would you boycott Brunei and Saudi Arabia?


  1. Find out how many countries LGBT people can get married in, and the number of countries where homosexuality is still a crime.
  2. Research Brunei, including its population, style of government and history. Write a one-page profile of the kingdom.

Some People Say...

“The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

John F. Kennedy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Brunei is the world’s fifth richest country thanks to its wealth of oil. In 2008, the Sultan’s net worth was estimated at $20 billion. Its citizens benefit from generous state benefits including free education and health care. However, its economy is becoming sluggish like many other oil-dependent nations. The government reportedly hopes that extreme Sharia measures will placate the ultra-conservative Muslim population during tough economic times.
What do we not know?
Whether the death by stoning punishment will actually be used. The country has not carried out an execution since 1957, and a conviction requires four eyewitnesses. However, LGBT people fear a growing tide of hatred towards them. “It opens the possibility that it might happen,” said one gay man told CNN.

Word Watch

A term from the Bible that refers to sex between men.
When a married person is unfaithful to their partner.
Sharia law
An Islamic legal system derived from the Koran. Adultery and sodomy are called serious “Hadd offences” under strict interpretations of Sharia law. Not all Muslim countries adopt such extreme measures, and many Muslims disagree with them.
With links to Brunei
They are owned by The Brunei Investment Agency, a government-owned wealth fund.
When someone makes a symbolic gesture to do something in order to make themselves look good.
Saudi Arabia accounts for 3% of UK oil imports. However, refusing to buy Saudi oil would cause oil prices to rise across the world.
South Africa
Sanctions and divestment were credited with helping to pressure the government into ending Apartheid.
Saudi Arabia has used US and British-made bombs to target civilians in Yemen.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.