Biden Swipes Trump Over Brunei LGBT Abuses, But Obama Administration Embraced the Sultanate

By Patrick Goodenough | June 3, 2019 | 4:25am EDT
President Obama and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (APEC) in Manila in November 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

( – Former Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday sought to link the Trump administration’s LGBT policies at home to attacks on LGBT individuals abroad, saying the U.S. should refuse to cooperate with governments responsible for violations, “as we did in our administration.”

But the example he cited – Brunei’s recent phasing in of a penal code providing for death by stoning for sodomy and adultery – was not one on which the Obama administration took a strong public stand when it was first announced more than five years ago.

Addressing the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Ohio gala, the 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful assailed the Trump administration’s LGBT policies, and suggested that it was sending a poor example to other countries.

“We have to make it clear – as we did in our administration – the United States of America will not stand for it in any countries and we will not cooperate with those countries who engage in this fratricide that they’re moving on,” he said. “Using religion or culture to discriminate against or demonize LGBTQ individuals is never justified, not anywhere in the world.”

Pointing to difficulties faced by LGBT people in a number of countries, Biden continued, “We’re losing ground to some of the divisive politics we’re battling here at home in the Trump administration.”

“That’s why it’s so important for the rest of us to speak out, make clear how repugnant we find these actions. For example in Brunei, a new law recently put into effect authorizes the execution by stoning of gay sex and adultery.”

“It was only thanks to the international outcry – not withstanding this president – and the global pressure that the sultan pulled back from that position, maintaining a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Wasn’t that so nice of him? He has very little social redeeming value.”

Brunei’s controversial statute took effect last March, but on the eve of Ramadan Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah said a de facto moratorium on executions would remain in force. (He did not rescind the Islamic code itself, saying it was “crucial in protecting the morality and decency of the public.”)

‘Our ambassador has relayed our concerns privately’

Despite Biden’s “as we did in our administration” remark, the Obama administration did not take a firm public stance when the Islamic sultanate first announced the shari’a punishments back in 2013.

Brunei was one of 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific participating in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade agreement which the Obama administration viewed as a top priority. As such the small, oil-rich sultanate was considered important enough to merit a number of visits by senior administration officials, as well as meetings between President Obama and Bolkiah in Washington and New York.

Obama intended to visit Brunei for an Oct. 2013 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit but canceled due to a government shutdown. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry did visit, and just days later the sultan first unveiled his shari’a penal code plans.

“Phase one” of the code took effect the following May, shortly after Kerry in a statement hailed the “excellent cooperation” between the U.S. and Brunei and described the sultanate as “wonderful.”

The development sparked a boycott – promoted by the Human Rights Campaign and others – of iconic Beverly Hills hotels owned by a Brunei investment fund controlled by the sultan.

But the Obama administration’s response was low-key.

That same month (May 2014), State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed Kerry had not spoken to the sultan since the law was announced seven months earlier, but said, “our ambassador has relayed our concerns privately to the government of Brunei.”

The Obamas host the Sultan of Brunei and his wife in New York in September 2015. (Photo: Infofoto, Brunei)

In September 2014, Bolkiah and his wife were invited to a reception hosted by Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Kerry met with Bolkiah in Jakarta a month later.

In June 2015, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about some LGBT activists’ criticism of the TPP, because of Brunei’s death-by-stoning plans.

He replied that while some argue such countries should be shunned or isolated because they “discriminate against people because of who they love,” Obama believed that engagement was the best way to advocate for the kinds of values he “has championed while sitting in the Oval Office.”

Three months later, the Obamas again hosted Brunei’s first couple at a reception on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, this time at the New York Palace Hotel.

When the TPP text was released in Nov. 2015, Earnest was asked why it did not include language “addressing laws criminalizing homosexuality in Malaysia and Brunei.”

He replied that there were provisions relating to “raising human rights standards,” adding that whenever Obama travels around the world “he makes clear to the leaders of other countries when he’s visiting with them how seriously we take the issue of human rights.”

Days later Obama met with Bolkiah again, at an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in the Philippines. In 2016 Bolkiah was back in the U.S. for an ASEAN summit hosted by Obama in California.

‘Violence, criminalization and discrimination’

President Trump pulled out of the TPP shortly after his inauguration.

When Brunei earlier this year moved ahead with “phases two and three” of the shari’a code, the State Department said in a statement the decision “runs counter to its international human rights obligations, including with respect to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

“All governments have an obligation to ensure that all people can freely enjoy the universal human rights and fundamental freedoms to which they are entitled,” it said. “The United States strongly opposes violence, criminalization and discrimination targeting vulnerable groups, including women at risk of violence, religious and ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons.”

Other elements of Brunei’s code range from limb amputation for thieves, lashes, terms of imprisonment, or fines for offenses such as “propagating” a religion other than Islam to a Muslim, drinking alcohol, attempting suicide or “failure to perform Friday prayer.”

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