WASHINGTON — John Kerry has gone to great lengths since becoming secretary of state to court the sultan of Brunei, the leader of a small but strategically important nation in Southeast Asia. Kerry has traveled twice to Brunei and lauded the “Abode of Peace,” a reference to the country’s name.
But in an awkward development, Brunei officials announced last month they will be implementing a form of strict Islamic law that could result in a gay person being stoned to death as punishment for a homosexual act. The death penalty could also be applied for getting pregnant outside marriage, drinking alcohol, or insulting Mohammed, the prophet of Islam.
The draconian penal code has put Kerry and the Obama administration on the defensive. It has sparked a backlash in the United States and overseas, including a boycott of two iconic Beverly Hills hotels owned by the Brunei Investment Agency. The agency, the country’s sovereign wealth fund, is controlled by the sultan, Hassanal Bolkiah, who rules as the nation’s absolute monarch.
Kerry has so far said nothing publicly about Brunei’s harsh new legal code, set to take effect next year. Moreover, according to his spokeswoman, Kerry has not spoken to the sultan since the law was passed. Instead, spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters this week that the US ambassador to Brunei “has relayed our concerns privately to the government of Brunei.”
The unfolding diplomatic drama symbolizes Kerry’s challenge in shaping US foreign policy as Washington seeks to balance the often competing demands of strategic interests and values.
The interests of the Obama administration are clear: It wants stay close to the oil-rich nation because it is located along the strategically vital South China Sea and is a participant in high-level trade talks. That makes it a key ally in the administration’s so-called Asia pivot, which is designed to strengthen US economic and security alliances in the region to counter China’s rise.
But Brunei’s treatment of gay people, among other human rights concerns, is at odds with the values that the United States says it wants to strengthen around the world.
The Human Rights Campaign — a leading advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights — has decried Brunei’s adoption of “horrific punishments.”
“The sultan of Brunei could start executing LGBT citizens as soon as next year,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.
While a number of countries have similarly harsh laws, Brunei’s new rule stands out because the country has been courted so aggressively by Washington due to its importance to the Obama administration’s Asian policy.
The Embassy of Brunei in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Emil A. Skodon, who served as US ambassador to Brunei from 2005 to 2008, said in an interview: “This issue of values, you need to put it in perspective. If the United States was only to have diplomatic relations with nations that have the same freedoms that we have set for ourselves, that would be a pretty short list of countries. The key is to pursue your interest without compromising your values. The two will often be in conflict.”
Gene Christy, who served as the US ambassador to Brunei from 2002 to 2005, said, “There are good, solid reasons for bilateral cooperation, but there have always been awkward moments.”
While US diplomats said there do not appear to be many clear options to change the calculation of the sultan, others asserted that the US government could more actively apply its leverage but believe economic interests too often trump human rights.
“Energy is the word these days, and if you have the energy you can do whatever you want, including selling women and children and slavery,” said Manda Zand, a human rights activist specializing in the Islamic world. “Nobody in the international community says anything. No peep from anyone. The excuse is, ‘This is their culture.’ But human rights is not a culture.”
Brunei, which obtained independence from Great Britain in 1984, is located on the island of Borneo. It has a population of less than 500,000 people, two-thirds of whom are Muslim, and it enjoys the highest per capita income in Southeast Asia, according to a 2014 report by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
The country has long been considered among the most tolerant Muslim nations but has grown steadily more conservative over the past few decades; the latest move is part of what the sultan has described as building a “firewall” against globalization.
“The sultan made an accommodation with the more conservative religious part of his community,” Christy said. “The first was a ban on alcohol, and every two or three years there has been a little bit more pressure from the religious authorities to take an additional step.”
The United States has increasingly viewed Brunei as a key partner, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The two nations joined forces to battle the Al Qaeda terrorist network, which planned the assault during a secret meeting in neighboring Malaysia and was later blamed for deadly bombings against foreigners in the resort of Bali, in nearby Indonesia.
The sultan’s first visit to the White House was to meet President George W. Bush in 2002, a visit that Christy recalled was uncomfortable.
“One of the reasons was you were meeting with an autocrat in a country that does not have freedom of speech or freedom of assembly,” Christy said. “There isn’t even an effort to be democratic.”
But the two nations’ common interests have become only more intertwined as the United States has refocused its diplomatic muscle on Asia following more than a decade of conflicts in the broader Middle East.
Brunei is currently among 11 nations trying to negotiate a landmark trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, designed to liberalize economic ties between North America and some of the largest economies in East Asia.
Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, China is laying claim to a series of small islands and atolls and has set off a series of naval confrontations — none of them violent so far — with a number of its neighbors.
One of the territorial disputes centers around an area just south of Brunei.
In February, to mark 30th anniversary of Brunei’s independence, Kerry heralded the US-Brunei partnership.
“The depth and value of this relationship was plain for me to see during my two visits to your wonderful ‘Abode of Peace’ last year,” Kerry said. “Our excellent cooperation in both bilateral and multilateral settings is vital to the prosperity and stability of the region.”
President Obama welcomed Brunei’s leader to the White House in 2013 and called him “a key leader in the Southeast Asia region and also widely respected around the world.”
Still, the State Department’s 2013 global human rights report criticized Brunei for its restrictions on religious freedom; exploitation of foreign workers; and limitations of the freedom of the press, assembly, and association as “the most prevalent human rights problems.”
It went on to mention the adoption of the new legal code based on religious Sharia law but noted that “the effect of the law will not be clear until it is implemented, which was scheduled to begin in phases starting in April 2014.”
Brunei was hardly the only country to come in for criticism for its treatment of gay people. The report found that “religious and ethnic minorities, women and girls, and LGBT persons are persecuted and subjected to repressive policies by too many governments.”
The adoption of the Brunei law has sparked a growing campaign by gay rights groups and others to try to send a message to the sultan — and to US leaders.
The Human Rights Campaign has helped to organize a boycott of two Los Angeles-area hotels, the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, that are owned by the Dorchester Collection, a Brunei government investment.