When Brunei recently announced that they would implement violent punishments for women and lesbian, gay, bi and trans people, residents from across Bristol were outraged. I agree. That’s why I spoke up in Parliament this month to demand that the UK government to hold the Sultan of Brunei to account for the abhorrent persecution of his own people.
In April, the Brunei government implemented the third phase of their new penal code, despite regional and international condemnation. Those convicted of anal sex or adultery can be stoned to death, public flogging is authorised as a ‘punishment’ for lesbian sex, and trans people can be criminalised through charges of ‘indecent’ dressing.
This oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people sits alongside a broader programme of attacks on women’s rights – women can be punished for pregnancy outside of marriage or for seeking an abortion.
In the Parliamentary debate I secured on this issue, Foreign Office minister Mark Field MP described the ‘close friendship’ between the UK and Brunei. Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth, and Britain has had a military presence in the country since 1962 (this agreement is due to be renegotiated next year). I argued that the UK has a moral duty to act when a strategic ally persecutes its own population.
Some may ask why this matters to a Bristol MP? Well, I have the fortune to represent people who care very deeply about human rights across the world. And I am also concerned that this change of law will directly affect some of the people in Bristol West that I represent.
Brunei’s actions have a direct impact on the UK. The Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that there are around 6,400 British citizens in Brunei. Many British people are employed in the military in Brunei, and many more work in the oil and gas industry. It is entirely possible for these British citizens to be prosecuted under these draconian laws.
I am therefore very concerned that there will be Bruneians in Bristol who may well be afraid for their safety as a result of these new measures. I also want assurances that people who live in Bristol can travel safely to Brunei for work or even just for holidays. I want everyone, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity, to be able to travel without having to check on the Foreign Office website that they’ll be in danger just for being who they are.
Brunei’s crackdown on lesbian, gay, bi and trans people takes place in a context where LGBT rights feel fragile across the globe. Major world powers like China, Russia, Brazil and even the United States have seen legislators undercut rights for and tacitly ignore abuse of their lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. The UK cannot allow the misogyny and homophobia of the Brunei government give succour to other would-be leaders across the globe who would persecute their own people.