Oxford University refuses to strip Sultan of Brunei’s degree over gay death penalty law

Commonwealth: Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah

Oxford University has ignored calls from its student union to strip the Sultan of Brunei of his honorary degree over the country’s implementation of sharia law, which makes gay sex punishable by death by stoning.

The world-leading institution refused to rescind the accolade despite two other universities—King’s College London and the University of Aberdeen—confirming to PinkNews that they will review honorary degrees awarded to the Bruneian ruler in light of the country’s draconian legislation, which came into force on Wednesday (April 3).

Oxford University awarded Brunei sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who has ruled over the country both as head of state and prime minister since 1967, an honorary degree of civil law by diploma in 1993.

“All honorary doctorates should reflect the ethos of the University.”

—VP of Welfare and Equal Opportunity at Oxford University, Student Union

But the institute has come under pressure from its official student body to take back the academic honour.

Speaking to PinkNews, Ellie Macdonald, vice-president of welfare and equal opportunity at Oxford University Student Union, said: “All honorary doctorates should reflect the ethos of the University.

“We want to create a safe and inclusive society for all and the people who receive this type of honour should be held to a high standard.

“If they fail to meet that, as in this case, they should be stripped of their honour.”

Oxford University

Pembroke College. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The top university, however, has refused to strip the sultan of the honorary degree.

“At present, the University will not be rescinding the Sultan of Brunei’s 1993 Honorary Degree of Civil Law by Diploma,” a University of Oxford spokesperson told PinkNews.

“We share the international condemnation of Brunei’s new penal code and back the United Nations’ call to stop the code entering into force.”

“If they fail to meet that, as in this case, they should be stripped of their honour.”

—VP of Welfare and Equal Opportunity at Oxford University, Student Union

In 2016, the University of Oxford came under fire after it refused to remove a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College.

Aberdeen and King’s College London universities to review Brunei sultan’s honorary degrees

Oxford University’s statement comes after the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, which awarded the sultan an honorary degree in 1995, said that it would review the academic honour in light of the country’s new anti-gay legislation.

A University of Aberdeen spokesperson told PinkNews: “The University of Aberdeen is inclusive and open to all.

“In light of this new information this matter will be raised as a matter of urgency with the University’s Honorary Degrees Committee.”

King’s College London has also confirmed that the university will review an honorary degree it gave to the sultan eight years ago.

“King’s is very proud of its diverse community and in light of these developments, the Principal has raised urgent concerns with the university’s Fellowships and Honorary Degrees Committee who will be reviewing the award made in 2011,” a spokesperson at King’s College London told PinkNews.

Bolkiah has further honorary degrees from Moscow State University for International Relations, Chulalongkorn University of Thailand, Universitas Gadjah Mada, National University of Singapore and Universitas Indonesia.

The introduction of the strict Islamic legal system of sharia law in Brunei, a former British protected state, will also impose the death penalty for adultery,  amputation for those found guilty of theft, and flogging for abortion.

Brunei, which sits on the island of Borneo, first announced its intention to introduce sharia law in 2013.

Celebrities including George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres have condemned the legislation, alongside humanitarian organisations.

UK government warns Britons travelling to Brunei

The UK government, meanwhile, has warned LGBT+ British citizens travelling to Brunei.

In a statement released on March 29, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that it was concerned by the Southeast Asian country’s draconian legislation, which will see the country implement sharia law on April 3.

“Corporal and capital punishment goes against our national values and has been banned in the United Kingdom for decades,” a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesperson told PinkNews.

“The Minister for Asia and High Commissioner have raised their concerns in person, and we have updated the travel advice to warn British citizens of the new local laws in Brunei.”