Brunei, the tiny Southeast Asian sultanate sitting on a billion barrels of proven oil reserves, is a close ally of the U.S., but some lawmakers in Congress are pushing to have the country booted out of the region's free trade talks due to its strict adherence to Islamic law.
The country is one of the original signatories to a proposed massive multinational Pacific Rim free trade accord. But ever since Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah implemented Islamic law in his country on May 1, critics are questioning whether a state that has legalized capital punishment for adultery and homosexuality should be allowed to participate in cooperative international economic agreements.
In 2005, Brunei was one of the four original signatories to a regional free trade pact with Chile, Singapore and New Zealand that evolved to become the more extensive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed largest free-trade agreement in history. A dozen countries encircling the Pacific Ocean, including the United States, have been working for years to smooth out a complex web of interests that could take years to finalize. Other countries have expressed interest in joining negotiations, including China.
“What we’re trying to say is that they [Brunei] shouldn’t be included in the negotiating process at all,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said during a conference call with journalists on Thursday. “And this is our perfect opportunity. We can best influence this now.”
Pocan, the first openly gay member of Congress to succeed another in the same seat, was one of 117 members of Congress to sign a letter that was sent this week to Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Trade Representative Michel Froman asking them to demand that “Brunei address these human rights violations as a condition of the United States participating with them in any further Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.”
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Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride At Work, an AFL-CIO-affiliated LGBT advocacy group, says there should be human rights guarantees written directly into free-trade agreements rather than have them be set aside in separate, ineffective side-deals that are usually little more than non-binding pledges.
When Canada and Colombia finalized their free trade agreement in 2011, the two sides signed separate accords aimed at protecting the environment and boosting protections for workers, as Colombia has a dismal track record on protecting labor rights activists. The problem? The side accords gave no enforcement mechanisms.
“While Canadians were promised that this agreement had been tailored to take account of human rights concerns, in fact the agreement turns out to be a standard ‘market-access’ oriented trade deal, with ineffectual side agreements on labor and the environment,” a 2009 report from the Canadian Council for International Cooperation said, slamming the free-trade deal as it was being negotiated.
In May, Brunei joined only eight other countries in the world, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, to adopt Shariah in both civil and criminal proceedings. (Many Islamic countries apply Shariah in issues like marriage, divorce and child custody, but they use secular law in prosecuting and punishing crime.) This means that a judge can, if he chooses, sentence anyone found guilty of adultery or sodomy to be stoned to death as prescribed in religious texts. Women can be detained for dressing immodestly, and charges of apostasy can be leveled easily at someone making even light criticism of the theocratic state, which is something Saudis know all too well.
Pocan said that it’s important to get Brunei out of the TPP negotiations before any agreement is signed, because Brunei-owned entities, like the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles (which was the target of boycotts earlier this year), would have greater trade protections, if covered by a free trade agreement, against any official effort to use commercial sanctions to change the country’s human rights situation.
“Once Brunei were part of a free trade agreement, it would really neuter our ability to do things to influence the private sector,” Pocan said.
Activist will have plenty of time to push their case. Ministerial-level talks in Singapore to move the trade agreement forward broke down in February over Japan’s concern for its agricultural sector and U.S. automakers’ frustration over Japan’s highly protected car market.
A poll in January showed that only U.S. President Barack Obama’s staunchest supporters agree with the president that he should have fast-track authority to expedite the trade deal. Such authority would keep Congress from meddling in the final proposal. Obama supports the TPP because he thinks it would be a boon to U.S. exports. Critics argue it gives other countries unprecedented power over national internal economic policies, like producing generic drugs.