}

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

They should have done better

This is another test: Will the world stand up and take a strong stand for basic human rights and individual freedom, or will it look the other way? Brunei is in the process of testing that question, and the results so far are decidedly mixed. The world should have done better.

The graphic at left is from the Facebook Page of Rainbow Labour, the LGBT+ branch of the New Zealand Labour Party, the party leading the current NZ Government coalition. When I saw their graphic, I was overwhelmingly underwhelmed. The country “expresses its concern”! Wow! Brunei must be very scared!

The headline in the graphic was a reference to the official press release from the Deputy Prime Minister (who was acting Prime Minister at the time, with the Prime Minister herself on a trip to China), Winston Peters (he’s also Foreign Minister). Headlined, “New Zealand concerned at Brunei’s implementation of Sharia law”, the press release is very brief, so here it is in full:
Acting Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has expressed concern at the Government of Brunei Darussalam’s intention to fully implement Sharia law.

“It is seriously regrettable that Brunei’s decision contravenes a number of international norms on human rights,” said Mr Peters.

“New Zealand opposes any kind of discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation. We are also deeply concerned at the use of punishments that are cruel, inhuman or degrading.

“New Zealand is a long-standing opponent of the use of the death penalty in all cases and in all circumstances,” Mr Peters said.
That was underwhelming, too. Brunei, already frightened by the NZ Government expressing its “concern”, will be quaking in its boots to hear implementing their law is “seriously regrettable”! This is a pathetic response from Peters and the New Zealand Government, and also from Rainbow Labour, who have taken on the role of cheerleader for the government when they should have been pushing and demanding better. In this case, they would have done better to wait for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response.

Asked about Brunei’s law while she was in China, the Prime Minister responded:
New Zealand has always stood against the death penalty, in all its forms, for any reason; New Zealand has also stood firmly in favour of the right of our rainbow community to live their lives, freely, openly and without fear for their safety. Obviously, those two issues combined, that is significant for New Zealanders and something we stand opposed to.
Clearly “we stand opposed” to the brutal newly-enforced laws is stronger than saying it’s merely a “concern” and “seriously regrettable”. It’s better, but far from perfect—it’s barely even “good”.

There has been condemnation around the world, as CNN reported, and some of it has been stronger than New Zealand’s. One of the strongest condemnations came from George Clooney who urged a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the autocratic ruler of Brunei. He said in part:
Brunei is a Monarchy and certainly any boycott would have little effect on changing these laws. But are we really going to help pay for these human rights violations? Are we really going to help fund the murder of innocent citizens? I've learned over years of dealing with murderous regimes that you can't shame them. But you can shame the banks, the financiers and the institutions that do business with them and choose to look the other way.
And that right there is the heart of the issue: There’s nothing the world can do to change the brutally inhuman laws. The country didn’t care in the least when the world protested their passing “sharia law” five years ago, and the hotel boycott back then changed nothing. So, there’s no reason to think that the hotel boycott will change anything now that the laws are in force.

It may, at first, seem odd that the world has so very little leverage against such a tiny country, and that’s probably because that’s not actually the case. As New Zealand Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman put it in a Tweet, “I will be raising it with the ministers involved (trade and foreign affairs). We buy crude oil and sell dairy to Brunei so should consider our leverage there as well as diplomatically to express our outrage.” And in that Tweet, she actually revealed precisely why governmental reactions are so weak: Oil and money.

Brunei is the fourth-largest producer of oil in Southeast Asia, and the world’s ninth-largest exporter of liquid natural gas (LNG). New Zealand is the country’s fifth-largest export market. The country imports most things, including around 60% of its food, and while the vast majority of that comes from ASEAN countries, other countries, including New Zealand, do sell to them.

Countries supplying petroleum and gas are always treated with great deference in world affairs, and tiny Brunei is no different. In addition to that, New Zealand has many challenging trade issues, such as dealing with an unstable and unpredictable US government that threatens continued exports to the USA, having issues with China, and also dealing with the general fluctuation in prices for agricultural products. New Zealand is caught in an economic vise. Other countries aren’t much different, and either depend too much on buying the country’s petroleum products or on selling them stuff, so they’re reluctant to push too hard. The countries that could push have little or no economic leverage to do so.

And yet, as Frederick Douglass put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” If there is any pressure that can be put on the tiny country, it ought to be done, even though Brunei may totally ignore it. That doesn't change the imperative. As Douglass also said in that speech:
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
The victims of the Brunei regime can never advocate for themselves. That makes it even more important that the world draws a firm line around behaviour that is utterly unacceptable in the family of nations—to keep the cancer of brutal inhumanity from spreading. While it may not help the immediate victims now, and maybe not even in the near future, standing up forcefully and with determination to brutality and inhumanity is the very least that is required of nations.

It’s nice when a country says it stands opposed to such brutal laws, and it should be unnecessary to say that a nation has “concerns” about brutality and inhumanity. Obviously, it’s always “seriously regrettable” when any country violates international law and fundamental human rights. But that doesn't actually do anything.

The world deserves better, but history shows it’s highly improbable it will get anything better. As always happens when stories like this pop up, it will probably disappear in a day or two, and it will remain forgotten right up until the country stones a gay person to death for the first time. Then countries around the world will again express their concern and say it is seriously regrettable. And nothing will happen, nothing will change.

Oil and money triumph over fundamental human rights every time. And that’s why I’m so overwhelmingly underwhelmed by that graphic and the New Zealand government’s response it refers to. After all we’ve been through recently, we would have expected better. They should have done better.

Related
"Amnesty slams Brunei’s new ‘vicious’ Islamic criminal laws"Associated Press
UN’s “Bachelet urges Brunei to stop entry into force of ‘draconian’ new penal code” – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
“UN slams 'inhuman' Brunei stoning laws”Al Jazeera

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