Brunei city mosque - panoramio

The TPP and Brunei’s regressive human rights policies

The massive trade deal could impact the United States' ability to legitimately condemn human rights abuses in the Asia-Pacific region.

Alex Kekauoha

The 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership could downsize to 11 nations thanks to ongoing concerns over human rights violations in Southeast Asia. Brunei is taking heat over policies that harm women and sexual minorities – a startling turn for a country that has made significant gains in recent decades.

Brunei is one of the smallest countries in Southeast Asia; it has less than half a million people living in just 2,200 square miles. With a 2013 gross domestic product of $16 billion, it is the smallest economy participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Despite its size, it has played a prominent role in regional politics for several years.

Brunei has been operating as a Malay Muslim monarchy ever since gaining its independence from Britain in 1984. That same year it formally established diplomatic relations with the United States, and ever since the two countries have worked closely on regional issues such as trade, education and conservation. The U.S. State Department’s website praises Brunei’s leadership in the region:

“The contemporary U.S.-Brunei relationship enters its fourth decade in a position of strength, based on the unprecedentedly intensive and productive bilateral engagement in 2013, when Brunei provided strong leadership for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the 2013 ASEAN Chair. In connection with Brunei’s role as ASEAN Chair, Brunei hosted three U.S. Secretary of State visits and other Cabinet-level U.S. government visits. Brunei’s hosting of the 18-nation ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting - Plus Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief and Military Medicine exercise in June 2013 demonstrated Brunei’s ability to bring together diverse nations, including the United States and China, for practical cooperation in valuable areas such as humanitarian military cooperation.”

Brunei’s economy has made significant gains over the last 30 years. Besides oil and gas, which account for a large portion of the country’s economic activity, manufacturing, construction, agriculture and fishing are prominent industries in Brunei. And the country’s expansion has resulted in positive economic returns for the United States. In 2013 American exports to Brunei totaled $559 million, up more than 254 percent from the previous year and up 1,389 percent from 2003.

From an economic standpoint, Brunei appears to be an emerging nation interested in participating in a 21st Century global economy. But the country’s recent adoption of oppressive policies regarding the treatment LGBT people and women make it look hundreds of years behind other developed nations and has the United States questioning the tiny country’s role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Last year leaders in Brunei announced the country would adopt strict Islamic laws, including the death penalty for women who get pregnant out of wedlock and stoning of gay people who engage in homosexual acts.

The draconian penal code, based on Islamic Sharia law, led to an outpouring of protest from humanitarian groups, activists and even Hollywood. The move led Congressman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin to urge top U.S. officials to denounce such extreme measures against human rights and to reconsider relations with Brunei. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, Pocan writes:

“Brunei’s adoption of the revised penal code legalizes violence against its citizens, constituting torture or other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. The United States must make it clear that we will not tolerate such abuses. International trade partners have much to gain from an economic relationship with the United States, and our trade agreements should insist that participating countries adhere to internationally recognized civil, political, and human right standards. Targeting LGBT individuals or religious minorities and opening the door for discrimination and violence against women is a threat we cannot overlook, and should trade agreements like the TPP go into effect with the participation of human rights violators, the United States would lose its leverage to provide economic pressure on countries to reverse unacceptable policies.

While numerous supporters of the TPP, including the president, have said the deal contains provisions that protect, and even improve, human rights standards, no one has seen text corroborating these claims. And with TPP ministers failing to come to a final trade agreement at their latest gathering on Maui, the U.S. could lose its chance to enforce its supposedly high standards on human rights.

Brunei has already begun rolling-out its new laws and will continue to do so over the next few months. If the country doesn’t make major changes to its penal code, then the U.S. and other progressive TPP nations will have to decide whether to keep Brunei in the pact. And failing to make a decision on the matter at all will make the U.S. look weak on global human rights issues. On the other hand, top U.S. officials appear to be taking on a more blasé attitude toward human rights in order to get the TPP passed. Just last week the U.S. State Department upgraded Malaysia’s status on its human trafficking report. The upgrade essentially means that, from a U.S. perspective, Malaysia has improved its efforts to curb human trafficking. But the upgrade comes just months after more than two-dozen “people-smuggling camps” were discovered in Malayasia.

Neither the U.S. State Department nor the U.S. Trade Representative have issued formal responses to Congressman Pocan’s letter.