Oxford University: 50,000 sign petition to remove Brunei sultan’s degree over gay death penalty

Commonwealth: Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah

A petition calling on the University of Oxford to rescind the Sultan of Brunei’s 1993 honorary degree, after the country imposed the death penalty for gay sex, has topped more than 50,000 signatures in less than 48 hours.

Brunei implemented the strict Islamic legal system of sharia law on Wednesday (April 3), making gay sex between men punishable with death by stoning and lesbian sex carrying a sentence of 40 whips of the cane or a 10 year jail sentence.

In response to the draconian legislation, two universities—King’s College London and the University of Aberdeen— have confirmed that they will review honorary degrees awarded to the Bruneian ruler Hassanal Bolkiah, who has ruled over the country both as head of state and prime minister since 1967.

However, as of Thursday afternoon (April 4), a spokesperson at the University of Oxford told PinkNews that, while it condemned Brunei’s new penal code, “at present, the university has not taken any decision on rescinding the Sultan of Brunei’s 1993 Honorary Degree of Civil Law by Diploma.”

The spokesperson previously said on Wednesday (April 3) that the university “will not be rescinding” the sultan’s honorary degree, before issuing an amendment to its initial statement.

Oxford students and alumni have been angered by the university’s response to the Southeast Asian country’s new laws, with the petition, which was set up on Wednesday and cites PinkNews’ original story, gaining over 50,000 signatures at the time of publication.

“Through refusing to rescind the Sultan’s Honorary Degree, the University of Oxford indicates that it is content for its name to be tied to human rights abuses and the persecution of LGBTQ+ people,” reads the petition.

“As a world renowned institution, the University should not be linked such legislation and must take a clear stance in opposition to the Sultan’s actions.”

Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society calls out “hypocrisy” of awarding sultan honorary degree

Oxford University’s LGBT+ student body has also been outraged by the lack of response from the world-leading institution.

In a statement sent to PinkNews, a spokesperson for the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society said: “We note with concern the University of Oxford’s refusal to revoke the honorary degree of laws it awarded to the Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah.”

Oxford University

Pembroke College, University of Oxford. (Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The spokesperson added: “While persecution of LGBTQ+ communities was already enabled by British colonial-era laws, this new mode of punishment is particularly cruel and inhumane; it will further repress marginalised communities to a horrific extent, especially LGBTQ+ individuals.

“This is blatantly contrary to international human rights laws and presumably contrary to any values the University professes to hold.

“Going forward, we hope that the University recognises the hypocrisy of conferring the legitimacy of an Oxford degree on someone responsible for such consequences, and reflects upon the moral untenability of persisting in this practice.

“We offer our solidarity to all persons who are affected by this injustice and, as always, to all Oxford University students and staff who feel distressed by the news and encourage them to contact any one of our identity or welfare reps for support.”

“We hope that the University recognises the hypocrisy of conferring the legitimacy of an Oxford degree on someone responsible for such consequences.”

—Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society

Ellie Macdonald, vice-president of welfare and equal opportunity at Oxford University Student Union, also told PinkNews that the sultan should be “stripped” of his honorary degree.

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

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.

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.

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.