Ruth Hunt is the Acting Chief Executive of Stonewall
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, has confirmed that he is continuing the implementation of a Sharia criminal code in his country. When implemented it will bring in punishments for a range of ‘offences’, including adultery and sodomy (the punishment for which would be death by stoning). The fact that Brunei rarely uses the death penalty (compared, say, to the US) is broadly irrelevant. The fact that homosexuality has been criminalised in Brunei for a long time, also irrelevant. The fact that there are many other countries that currently have similar laws doesn’t sway our unequivocal view that events in Brunei are an abomination.
These acts by the Sultan have led to calls for a boycott of The Dorchester Collection by the great and good of Hollywood. At Stonewall we share the anger and fury of those calling for a boycott but we won’t be joining them.
We are committed to achieving equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people – both here in Great Britain and abroad. We’re renowned for our pragmatism and our belief that talking is usually more effective than protests - however satisfying protests may be, in the short term they’re often most rewarding to the individuals taking part. We only implement actions that we can calculate will have an impact.
The recent boycott of The Dorchester Collection has undoubtedly raised awareness in the West of the issues in Brunei but the crucial questions for Stonewall are whether there is a mandate for the boycott and would such a boycott work? We believe the answer is no, on both counts. I do not believe the somewhat beleaguered Christopher Cowdray, Chief Executive of the Collection, can somehow influence the implementation of Sharia criminal code in Brunei. He can’t. I do, however, fear that the boycott could do very real harm to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei. By turning the issue into a battle between gay people and the Sultan – which it isn’t, it affects everyone in Brunei, not just gay people - we limit the opportunity for dialogue and put the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of Brunei at far greater risk. A group of people, I hasten to add, who’ve yet to publically call for a boycott.
This issue, and the response to it, raises far more complex questions for civil rights campaigners in the UK, Europe, the US and Canada. We live in an ever more interconnected world where we’re tied - both economically and strategically - to countries that don’t treat women, LGBT people, or ethnic and religious minorities, as we’d like. Investments from other countries are crucial to our economic stability. In March 2013, the White House described the Sultan’s visit as a meeting that “underscores the strategic importance the President places on the Asia Pacific region and to substantive engagement with our friends and partners in the region.” In London the vast majority of our major hotels (and it seems, most of London) are now owned by groups and investment companies from outside of the UK. The Savoy is owned by Saudi Arabia's Kingdom Holding Company. The Corinthia by the Libyan Foreign Investment Company and Nakheel Hotels of Dubai.
This dilemma isn’t new in itself. Campaigners have long debated the merits of their Governments working with appalling regimes to try and bring about change or, alternatively, withdrawing and condemning them.
What is new is the collective power and voice of the LGBT community, powered by social media and emboldened by success at home, to bring issues to public attention.
It is incredible that as a community, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans people and our allies feel strongly enough about the rights of our friends in other countries that we want to take a stand, including marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia this week. It speaks to our maturity as a movement that if you hurt gay people in your country, it hurts all of us and that the success of Conchita Wurst in Eurovision can feel like a victory for us all.
But as campaigners we need to avoid easy solutions that make us feel better and instead seek the solutions that work. We understand the frustration we all feel in trying to find what, as individuals, we can do to bring about change. But our collective power needs to be put to use so it actually makes a real difference to the lives of LGBT people around the world.
Stonewall’s plan is to instead work with groups, like the Dorchester, rather than against them. Companies have enormous power to change and challenge cultures and we help them utilise that influence. We work with global employers to ensure that the full legal rights and protections that we enjoy in the UK are extended to all staff worldwide. We work with global companies such as IBM, EY, Citigroup, British Airways and the Ministry of Defence, to help them think about how they can extend the values they hold so dear in the UK to other countries where they operate. We challenge them too: can a lesbian work for six months in Dubai as easily and safely as a heterosexual man and if not, what are you doing to support her? Can your gay cabin crew stay safely in Nigeria before flying back to the UK? We know that, by ensuring staff are afforded the fundamental rights at work that their own governments deny them, companies can make a real difference to the lives of LGBT people.
Crucially we work with human rights defenders in countries right around the world to support them in their own journeys to equality. The change we’ve seen here in the UK did not happen because of boycotts. It happened because a constellation of campaigners, individuals and companies committed changing the country. The same will be true in countries like Brunei.
Stonewall doesn’t have all the answers and we’ve got things wrong in the past. But the stakes internationally are much higher. The situation for LGBT people globally is constantly evolving so the fight for equality will take time, perseverance and the need to continuously adapt. At Stonewall we’re in it for the long haul. The energy and passion of those boycotting is indispensable and I hope that, between us, we’ll see real change in countries like Brunei and beyond. That, after all, is what we all want.
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