Oxford University to review Brunei sultan’s degree over gay death penalty

Commonwealth: Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah

The University of Oxford has said it will review an honorary degree it awarded to the Sultan of Brunei in 1993 over the country’s new penal code, which imposes the death penalty for gay sex.

In a statement on Saturday (April 6), the university said that it “shares in the international revulsion” of Brunei’s draconian legislation, which came into effect on Wednesday (April 3).

The university’s latest statement comes after the King’s College London (KCL) and the University of Aberdeen both said on Wednesday (April 3) that they would review academic honours awarded to the Bruneian ruler Hassanal Bolkiah.

“We will reconsider this decision through our established process in light of the information now available, as other British Universities are doing,” reads the statement from the University of Oxford.

“At no point has the University declined to reconsider this decision.”

A spokesperson from Oxford University had originally told PinkNews on Wednesday (April 3) that it  “will not be rescinding” the sultan’s honorary degree, despite the response from KCL and Aberdeen—and calls from its own student union to do so.

Following PinkNews’ report, a petition was set up later on Wednesday calling on the world-leading institution to rescind the sultan’s academic honour, which has so far received nearly 60,000 signatures (59,838 at the time of publication).

In an updated statement on Thursday afternoon (April 4), an Oxford University spokesperson 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.”

In its new statement released on Saturday, the University of Oxford added: “As an institution deeply committed to equality, diversity and individual rights we understand and share the concerns of our students and staff who have expressed abhorrence at recent developments in Brunei and would like to disassociate from them.

“We also believe in due process.

“Just as nobody has a right to confer an honorary degree, nobody has a right summarily to rescind it.

“The decision to confer this degree 26 years ago was recommended by a Committee and approved by Council and by Congregation at the time.”

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.

Celebrities, including George Clooney and Ellen DeGeneres, called for people to boycott nine hotels owned by Brunei, with hundreds of protestors rallying outside The Dorchester hotel in London on Saturday (April 6), which is owned by the country’s government.

Oxford University’s new statement comes after an University of Aberdeen spokesperson said on Friday (April 4) that its honorary degrees committee had recommended for the sultan’s academic honour to be revoked.

The recommendation has been passed on to its academic body to make a final decision.

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

Oxford University’s LGBT+ student body had been outraged by the lack of response from Oxford University over the academic honour it awarded to Bolkiah, who has ruled over the country both as head of state and prime minister since 1967.

In a statement sent to PinkNews, a spokesperson for the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society said on Thursday (April 4): “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.

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