Westminster Hall: LGBT Rights in Brunei

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Thangam Debbonaire MP regarding LGBT rights in Brunei. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and you can find the debate in its entirety here.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

It is a pleasure to be here. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) on securing this important debate. She is always a passionate advocate for equal rights, and I pay tribute to her commitment on the issue. I am also grateful for the widespread interest and the insights of other hon. Members.

To begin, I think it is worth reiterating what I said in my statement only six days ago. The Government

“oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all forms, and we do not believe that amputation or stoning are legitimate or acceptable punishments. Indeed, we consider them to be illegal under international human rights laws relating to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”

We also

“consider it appalling that, in the 21st century, people anywhere are still facing potential persecution and discrimination because of who they are and whom they love.”

As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, human rights are universal and should apply equally to everyone.​

LGBT people are not asking for special rights; they simply expect to be accorded the same dignity, respect and rights as all other citizens. That is why the UK strongly supports, defends and champions the rights of LGBT people here in the UK and all around the world, and opposes the criminalisation of homosexual relationships worldwide, whether in Brunei or elsewhere. As has been pointed out, there are still some 70 countries worldwide that discriminate against any person based on their sexuality, and we continue to encourage all those countries to repeal their laws. There has been some progress since 2015, with five countries decriminalising homosexual relationships, but we all accept that there is more still to do.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)

Will the Minister give way?

Mark Field

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I want to try to answer as many of the points as I can.

The introduction of the sharia penal code and hudud punishments in Brunei will have an even more discriminatory and intimidating impact on those who are LGBT there. That is something that we cannot accept and that we believe is in contravention of Brunei’s international commitments to respect human rights and individual freedoms. We have expressed our concerns to the Government of Brunei. I personally raised the matter when I was there last summer, because we saw this car crash coming. To be fair, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and others have pointed out, the pure weight of international opinion that has come out over the past week has surprised many within Brunei, and particularly within the court of the Sultan.

The day after the measures came into force on 3 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called Brunei’s Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan, to reiterate our very deep concern. The Foreign Secretary, our high commissioner, Richard Lindsay, and I have heard explanations, first, that common law will continue to be the primary means of administering justice and, secondly, that the burden of proof under the sharia penal code is almost unattainably high—although I take on board the comments by the hon. Member for Bristol West about confessions.

Although those explanations provide a very small degree of reassurance, none of us, of course, accepts that they go anything like far enough. The fact remains that homosexual relationships will be illegal in Brunei, whether under common law or under the sharia penal code. We remain clear that homosexuality should not be illegal anywhere in the world, and that any form of punishment—particularly the abhorrent hudud punishments—is unacceptable.

The UK will remain committed to the principle of non-discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation, gender and identity. We are a party to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and a signatory to the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. To answer the hon. Lady, I understand that Brunei plans to expedite its ratification of UNCAT. That is welcome, but what has happened with this code is, of course, directly in opposition to it. I will come to that towards the end of my speech.​

As has rightly been said, these are universal issues, but it is worth pointing out the position of British nationals, who are obviously impacted to a large extent. As I assured the House last week, we have taken positive action to inform and support British nationals in Brunei, whether they are visitors, residents or among the garrison. We have updated our travel advice to ensure that British nationals are aware of both the introduction of the sharia penal code and all its potential, albeit unlikely, implications.

On military personnel, I will obviously ensure that this speech is passed on to the Defence Secretary.

Martin Docherty-Hughes

rose—

Mark Field

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do.

Martin Docherty-Hughes

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is, as always, very courteous. He will know that British Forces Brunei was agreed on the premise that Brunei was seen as a moderate front against extremist ideology. Is that still the case?

Mark Field

Yes, it is, obviously, in counter-terrorism and other areas. The most disappointing thing for me and, I know, for my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who is also a regular in Brunei, is the contrast between what we see on the ground—a peaceful, peace-loving people and a state that runs in a very patrician way, as we might imagine given that only 350,000 people live there—and the idea of hudud punishments and the enactment of a sharia penal code. Those things seem entirely at odds with each other, but we are working with Brunei on the grounds the hon. Gentleman points out.

The garrison is the UK’s only permanent military presence in the Asia-Pacific. I should point out that a vast amount of the expense of the garrison is met by the Sultan of Brunei, who has always been eternally grateful for our intervention in Borneo in 1962. The garrison provides unique influence and insight—not just for us but for Brunei—in a region of growing strategic importance, and enables vital training for UK forces, supporting our deployments and allies. We have ensured that the necessary protections are in place for personnel based in Brunei, but we would look for that to apply more generally.

A number of hon. Members and others outside this place have asked whether the Commonwealth should take action and whether there should be economic or trade boycotts. The FCO’s approach to both is the same: we believe that our concerns are best addressed not through blacklisting or boycotts but through persistent dialogue, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) will recognise, and through diplomacy.

Brunei is one of several Commonwealth member states that criminalise homosexual relationships and retain corporal or capital punishments. We will continue relentlessly to try to encourage each of those countries to amend and suspend those forms of punishment. There has been progress, but I accept that many would like to see much quicker progress. In many ways, what is disappointing about this issue in Brunei is that the implementation of such a code is a backward rather than a forward step.​

My noble Friend the Minister for the Commonwealth has spoken in detail about this issue to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who I understand is presently in contact with the Government of Brunei, expressing the deep concerns raised by the international community over the past 10 days. We stand ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community, women and other parts of society. Significant work is ongoing in a number of states where we hope that there will be progress.

The hon. Member for Bristol West asked me to do my homework from six days ago in relation to article 3 of UNCAT. Under UK law, extradition cannot take place where the death penalty is a possibility, unless a satisfactory assurance has been received that the death penalty will not be imposed or carried out.

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)

rose—

Mark Field

No, I really am running out of time.

The UK Government remain committed to delivering an asylum system that is sensitive and responsive to all forms of persecution, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that supports claimants in providing all information relevant to their claim in order to facilitate fair and sustainable asylum decisions. We ensure that claimants are given every opportunity to disclose information relevant to their claim before a decision is taken, including where that information may be sensitive or difficult to disclose. Those who need international protection should always, of course, claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

The introduction of extreme hudud punishments in Brunei has understandably caused genuine concern, alarm and consternation in this country and elsewhere. It has also caused concern and uncertainty in Brunei, particularly among residents who are from the UK or are other non-Bruneian nationals. We are a friend of Brunei—I am proud to say that even at this time. Many Members will understand that it is easy to criticise Ministers for talking in such terms, but we have to work closely with our friends. We have expressed, and should continue to express, deep concerns candidly and openly.

We remain deeply troubled by the potential impact of the sharia penal code. Therefore, the Government, our high commissioner and I will continue to guide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, the Government of Brunei to take all necessary steps to reassure its own people, the United Kingdom and the ​wider international community that it is fully committed to allowing all citizens and residents to live with dignity and free from discrimination or persecution.

The Foreign Secretary and I will reiterate that point when we meet the Bruneian Foreign and Finance Ministers, who are in London tomorrow. We will emphasise that this issue will not just blow over, and we will stress our ongoing concerns and the need for Brunei to provide public assurances. I shall also pass on the very heartfelt views that we have expressed in the House today.

I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your indulgence in allowing me these additional few seconds.