Brunei’s partial walk back of anti-LGBT laws shows the power – and the limits – of activism. Liam Glen writes on what can be done about human rights abuses abroad.
When Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei (and also its Prime Minister, Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Defense, and Minister of Finance), announced that he would not enforce a law mandating the death penalty for gay sex, adultery, and blasphemy, it felt like a victory for human rights activists who raised attention to the issue. The declaration was meaningless. The law is still on the books. No execution has taken place in Brunei since 1957, so it is unlikely that that part would have ever been enforced. But the very fact of the statement, which was unusually translated into English, proves that international condemnation made the autocrat weary.
How It Happened
It centered on the hotels. The fact that Hassanal Bolkiah owns several hotels in California, Britain, France, and Italy rose to prominence when he first adopted sharia law in 2014.A boycott failed to gain traction then, but this year, it was buoyed by public figures like Ellen DeGeneres. Facing public pressure, many banks forbade their employees from staying in luxury hotels.
Some, such as actor and human rights activist George Clooney, pointed out that decreased hotel revenue is unlikely to change the Sultan’s behavior. However, he did note that shaming the major companies that do business in Brunei could be more effective.
This is especially true due to Brunei’s dependence on oil. Shell, an essential partner in the country’s petroleum industry, faced pressure to disinvest.
The decision-making that went on in the royal palace of Istana Nurul Iman is a mystery, but these threats to the country’s economy were surely on the Sultan’s mind. Hassanal Bolkiah’s guarantee that gays and lesbians will not be stoned to death has placated some. Others see this as too low a bar to pass. For his part, like Clooney is maintaining his boycott.
The incident raises a question that is not asked often enough – what can someone concerned about human rights abroad actually do about the issue?
The Limits of Disinvestment
Disinvestment against human rights abusers is one of the few tools open to ordinary people in democratic countries. Changing one’s consuming habits may be difficult, but it is hardly an insurmountable task. It is also one of the few contexts where social media callouts can actually be helpful. The strategy also has a history of effectiveness.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement helped isolate the white minority government in South Africa. As the movement gained traction in the 1980s, the apartheid regime grew more and more unstable until it was forced to enact universal suffrage in 1994.
In my home state of North Carolina, the infamous House Bill 2 banned local anti-discrimination laws and forced citizens to use public facilities corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. Various companies’ boycott of the state helped defeat Pat McCrory, the government who defended the law, in 2016.
However, this strategy also has its limits. Boycotts are effective for a sudden change. As leaders see their income suddenly drop, they turn to damage control or risk deposition.
But in the long term, autocracies can thrive in isolation. International disinvestment hastened the collapse of Apartheid. But it has also helped maintain autocracy in North Korea. The leadership is secure so long as it maintains economic ties to China and Russia, allies that give little priority to human rights.
This situation has led to some unusual proposals. Left-wing activist John Feffer defended Donald Trump’s negotiations North Korea as closer ties with the country would allow the US and international organizations to apply more pressure on the government in the long run.
This is especially true when it comes to social issues like LGBT rights. In the most widely successful scenario, international pressure on Brunei would fell the Sultanate and create a democratic government. But same-sex relations will only gain acceptance as social attitudes change.
Similarly, it is unlikely that PayPal’s decision not to build an operations center in North Carolina converted many defenders of House Bill 2 into supporters of trans rights.
Changes in attitudes are slow, and they are more likely to take place when countries are integrated. Cultural globalization is a controversial phenomenon, but it has been effective in promoting social equality.
Boycotts and disinvestment are useful in certain circumstances, but as usual solutions for geopolitical problems are long-term and unpredictable, outside the reach of ordinary citizen-activists.