The Brunei Project expresses deep concern about the ongoing unjust detention and inhumane treatment of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia. Having run for four years the Liberal Saudi Network, an online forum encouraging debate about religious and political issues, Raif Badawi was arrested in 2012 on charges of "insulting Islam through electronic channels" in what is clearly an attack on free speech and an attempt to silence the Saudi regime's critics. Mr Badawi is believed to be in poor health and it is feared that he may not survive if the punishment of 1000 lashes continues to be carried out.
It is commonly argued by those who oppose or do not understand the right to free speech and expression that such a right is unrestricted and, when left unchecked, can have a destabilising influence and lead to unrest and anarchy. Such claims are unfounded. Aside from the fact that in free societies around the world law and order comfortably exists alongside free speech and expression, most free speech advocates themselves recognise the need for limited restrictions on the use of that freedom to ensure it is not abused to the detriment of others.
Most who enjoy the right to free speech recognise that a line needs to be drawn between what is acceptable speech and what goes beyond the boundaries of that right. There are specific provisions within the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that are intended to protect against the misuse of free expression and to which all signatories are bound to uphold, including obligations on member states to prohibit by law the incitement of discrimination, hostility or violence. As UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad recently wrote, "When words are formulated with the clear intention of causing harm and violence on national, racial or religious grounds, the right to freedom of expression is no longer exercised, because it has become an incitement to hatred, which is prohibited by law." There are also provisions within the ICCPR that enable States to restrict freedom of expression, but only where it is evident that there exists a threat to national security or public order and only for so long as that threat exists.
Furthermore, countries in which free speech and expression are core values also enact domestic legislation that ensure that the right to free speech and expression is not misused to promote or incite hatred and unrest. For example, analysis of Australian law has found that the Criminal Code Act 1995 makes it an offence to incite violence or force to overthrow the country's Constitution or Government, but still allows for change to both to be advocated by way of lawful and peaceful means. Meanwhile, Australia's Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it unlawful to do anything that is certain to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group if the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of that person or group. When the Australian Government proposed watering down the Racial Discrimination Act in 2014, the wider population were able to freely express their overwhelming opposition to the changes and the proposed amendments were subsequently scrapped.
Freedom of speech and expression are internationally accepted fundamental rights as recognised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international human rights mechanisms, including the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. As with the ICCPR, the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration holds that "every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person's choice." Such a right is your right and does not pose a threat to stability and security. As the international experience shows, the right to free speech and expression can exist alongside robust laws that protect the stability and security of the State as well as the other rights of citizens, including freedom from discrimination and intimidation. Furthermore, as the example of Australia has demonstrated, the right to free speech and expression can strengthen the policy making process by enabling the community to speak out against the arbitrary amendment or implementation of laws by government that may otherwise undermine harmony within the wider community and the protection of minority groups.
Public lecture on freedom of speech and expression by Professor David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, given at the University of Indonesia, Jakarta on 4 June 2015. The lecture can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/130084388
The Brunei Project is deeply concerned by Tuesday's conviction of Htin Lin Oo in Myanmar on charges of insulting religion. Htin Lin Oo, a prominent author and former information officer for the opposition National League for Democracy, was placed into custody in December last year following a speech in which he argued that discrimination on racial and religious grounds was incompatible with the central tenets of Buddhism and courageously advocated for religious tolerance in the country.
Htin Lin Oo was charged under Articles 295a and 298 of Myanmar's Penal Code, which prohibit "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings" and the uttering of words "with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings". Amnesty International considers Htin Lin Oo to be a prisoner of conscience and the verdict to be a blow to freedom of expression.
The Brunei Project calls on the authorities in Myanmar to immediately release Htin Lin Oo and clear all charges against him. All governments must respect every person's right to freedom of speech and expression in accordance with their obligations under various human rights mechanisms, including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Furthermore, they must strengthen their commitment to racial and religious freedom by rejecting laws that undermine racial and religious diversity and prevent people from freely practicing their culture and religion without any form of discrimination.
For our friends in Jakarta, you may be interested in attending this public lecture by Professor David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression.
FORUM-ASIA has released its 2014 Annual Report. Founded in Manila in 1991 to promote and protect human rights through fostering collaboration and cooperation among human rights organisations and defenders throughout Asia, FORUM-ASIA has established itself as one of Asia's leading human rights organisations, with a coalition of 47 member organisations from 16 countries. Click on the button below to view FORUM-ASIA's 2014 Annual Report.
Act now and demand that Southeast Asian governments immediately help thousands of stranded migrants and refugees
Please support efforts by Amnesty International and other human rights groups by writing to Southeast Asian governments urging them to help the estimated 8000 refugees and migrants stranded at sea. Click on the link below for more information from Amnesty International Malaysia and to access a sample letter that can be used. So far, the Philippines is the only Southeast Asian government to have offered refuge to some of the stranded, agreeing on Monday to accept 3000 of the refugees. The Brunei Project welcomes this commitment by the Philippines Government and urges other regional governments to follow Manila's lead.
Since 2004, May 17 has been commemorated around the world as the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and is used to draw the attention of the world's policymakers, media and others to the discrimination and violence experienced by the LGBTIQ* community globally. In 2014, there were 1600 events held across more than 130 countries to mark IDAHOT. Awareness and recognition of the discrimination faced by LGBTIQ-identifying people is growing and the number of countries that promote homophobia and transphobia by way of discriminatory and unjust laws continues to decline. Whereas the number of countries criminalising homosexuality in 2006 was 92, the figure has now dropped to 76 in 2015.
Despite the gains that have been made in the global fight against homophobia and transphobia, much more still needs to be done. LGBTIQ people continue to face persecution in many parts of the world, including in the form of imprisonment and, in some cases, even death. Among those countries that continue to criminalise same-sex relations is Brunei, where under current laws people found guilty of same-sex relations can face imprisonment of up to 10 years. If Brunei continues with full implementation of the Syariah Penal Code, punishment of LGBTIQ people will be taken even further with a range of "offences" attracting penalties that include fines, whipping, imprisonment and, most disturbing of all, stoning to death for males found guilty of same-sex relations. The first phase of the Syariah Penal Code was implemented in May 2014 and in March this year, the first member of Brunei's LGBTIQ community known to have been prosecuted under the Syariah Penal Code was a man fined for crossdressing in October 2014.
This International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, The Brunei Project calls on Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah to show compassion by repealing all laws that target the LGBTIQ community in Brunei and to implement policies that protect the rights of LGBTIQ people.
* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Intersex, Questioning (LGBTIQ)