In December, President Barack Obama ended trade benefits with Gambia after Africa’s smallest country approved a law that called for life imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality” and its autocratic ruler referred to gays as “vermins.”
It’s a different story in Brunei, a tiny, oil-rich Asian country that imposed a law last year requiring death by stoning for people who engaged in same-sex acts. If Obama gets his way, Brunei will become one of 11 nations to join the United States in signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which if passed would create the largest trade pact in history.
Gay rights groups and their allies want Brunei thrown out of the talks.
“A country that has laws that are anathema to American values doesn’t deserve to be in our trade negotiations,” California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said in an interview. “We need to send a clear message.”
With more than 100 members of Congress calling for the United States to get tough on Brunei, the issue poses yet another obstacle for Obama and his team as they try to wrap up work in the coming months on the long-stalled trade pact.
Obama’s top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman, confronted the issue last week when he went to Capitol Hill to ask Congress to pass trade-promotion authority that would force an up-or-down vote on the pact, with no amendments or filibusters allowed.
Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin told Froman that it’s appropriate for the executive branch and Congress to mix trade and human rights.
“Let me just remind you that it was U.S. leadership in trade that helped change the apartheid government of South Africa,” Cardin said.
For trade backers, it’s an old debate, and a hard one.
“This is always difficult territory for trade people, none of whom want to be accused of being opposed to human rights,” said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a pro-trade group.
He said the best way to get Brunei officials to change their law was to engage with them and integrate the country into the Western trading system, not to isolate them.
“Our experience has been that sticks don’t work very well, while carrots sometimes succeed,” Reinsch said. “Kicking them out of TPP might make us feel better, but it will diminish the trade agreement and also not achieve the objective of changing their anti-gay policy. In other words, it’s lose-lose.”
Congress has a long history of pressing human rights issue in trade debates.
Angered by abuses in China, an unlikely pair of senators – conservative Jesse Helms of North Carolina and liberal Paul Wellstone of Minnesota – teamed up unsuccessfully in 2000 to try to kill President Bill Clinton’s plan to normalize trade ties with China. As part of a Russian trade bill that passed in 2012, Cardin got Congress to attach a provision that required the State Department to maintain a list of human rights abusers in Russia and deny them entry to the United States.
Gay-rights groups cheered Obama’s move against Gambia, announced Dec. 23. While the president made no specific reference to Gambia’s anti-gay policy, administration officials said the action was taken because of a concern over human rights abuses.
Obama acted after the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, gathered 18,000 signatures on a petition asking him to take action against Gambian President Yahya Jammeh by freezing his assets and not allowing him to enter the U.S.
In a speech last year, Jammeh said: “We will fight these vermins called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively.”
Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work – a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO labor union – said Obama had “set a clear precedent” for using trade to advance gay rights in Gambia and should do the same in Brunei.
“Brunei’s law is actually worse because it imposes the death penalty, whereas Gambia ONLY imposes life in prison – as if that’s an ONLY,” he said. “And let’s be clear: Brunei enacted this law while they were in TPP negotiations.”
Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah sparked outrage last year when he announced the law, which took effect in April. It calls for flogging and the severing of limbs for property crimes, and death by stoning for sodomy, adultery, rape and sex outside of marriage.
It prompted an immediate rebuke from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the office, said stoning constituted torture and was cruel and degrading punishment that was clearly banned under international law.
The issue quickly exploded in California, when stars such as Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres joined protests over the Trans-Pacific Partnership and urged boycotting a Beverly Hills hotel owned by the government of Brunei.
The Brunei Embassy in Washington, D.C., referred questions to Baldeep Singh Bhullar, an embassy officer who handles issues related to the trade pact. He could not be reached for comment.
When Froman appeared before the Senate Finance Committee last week, he said U.S. negotiators were pressing the issue with Brunei as part of talks on the pact and had been working closely on the matter with State Department officials.
He said he felt good about the progress, adding that the trade talks with Brunei gave the United States an opportunity to “ensure that what they do is consistent with their international human rights obligations.”
Such assurances didn’t go far enough for Davis, who said it was a “little odd” that the Obama administration had acted decisively with Gambia but not with Brunei.
“I’m not sure that a stern talking-to is going to really change their minds,” he said.
Davis said Congress should drop Brunei from the trade agreement if Obama wouldn’t. But he said that would be impossible if Congress first passed trade-promotion authority, which would prohibit any changes before a vote.
Obama met with the Sultan of Brunei at the White House in 2013, calling him “my good friend” and praising him as a key leader in Southeast Asia who’s “widely respected around the world.”
“His Majesty himself has led his country for 40 years now and he’s gone through nine U.S. presidents,” Obama said. “I won’t ask him which one was his favorite, but our interest in having a strong, peaceful, prosperous Asia Pacific region is something that we share.”
With Obama making the Trans-Pacific Partnership one of his top economic priorities, Garamendi said it was hardly surprising that the administration had refused to budge on Brunei.
“The administration is determined to put through the TPP at any cost,” he said.