Sultan’s honorary doctorate upheld despite objections

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Students have reacted with outrage to news that the University has refused to rescind the Sultan of Brunei’s Honorary Doctorate in Law after he revised the country’s laws earlier this year to make same-sex sexual activity punishable by stoning to death.

To be publicly LGBTQ in Brunei was previously punishable by a 10-year prison sentence, but following a number of changes this year, the death penalty has been introduced. Any person who declares him or herself to be a non-Muslim is liable to face the same penalty.

The Sultan, however, currently holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University, and sponsors a fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies (OCIS).

Both the University and OCIS have refused to review this situation in the light of this news. A University spokesman told Cherwell, “At present, the University will not be rescinding the Sultan of Brunei’s 1993 Honorary Degree of Civil Law by Diploma. We have no further comment at this time.”

A spokesman for OCIS said, “The fellowship was endowed a number of years ago and all due procedure followed at that time. We do not think it would be appropriate to revisit the matter, or make any further comment.”

OCIS has accepted donations from a range of further controversial figures. Another fellowship is sponsored by Sultan bin Abdulaziz, former Sultan of Saudi Arabia, whose £2 million donation to the Ashmolean Museum in 2005 prompted criticism in national news.

The Sultan of Brunei was condemned by the United Nations when the laws were first passed on April of this year.

Speaking to LGBT news site PinkNews at the time, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights remarked, “Application of the death penalty for such a broad range of offenses contravenes international law.”

He added, “Under international law, stoning people to death constitutes torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is thus clearly prohibited.”

International law also prohibits the criminalisation of consensual relations betwen adults in private, which violates the rights to privacy, quality and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention.

The news of the University’s refusal to reconsider the honour in response to questions from PinkNews prompted swift reaction from students.

An emergency motion was put to OUSU Council on Wednesday, proposed by Dan Templeton, LGBTQ Officer for the student union, mandating the LGBTQ Campaign to write a letter to the relevant authorities, explaining the situation for LGBTQ people in Brunei, and asking the University to clarify the reasons for its decision and to strip the Sultan of his honorary degree.

The motion also mandates the campaign to ask the University to reveal any funding it has received from the Sultan of Brunei. It passed quickly and by unanimous decision.

Dan Templeton told Cherwell, “The current lack of action by the University is highly disappointing and shows a serious lack of regard for LGBTQ students in Oxford. The fact that OUSU passed a unanimous motion to condemn the Sultan of Brunei’s honorary degree and call for its revocation demonstrates the anger felt by Oxford students.

“We hope that Oxford University will reconsider its position regarding the Sultan’s degree and look forward to working with the student unions in King’s College London and Aberdeen to achieve the same; only then can these institutions claim that they support LGBTQ rights.”

The Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, became Sultan in 1967, at the age of 21.

His 1,800-room palace, the Istana Nurul Iman, is the largest private residence in the world, and his family’s fortune is estimated to be £7.75 billion.

Since Brunei gained independence from the UK in 1984, the Sultan has been awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 1992 and honorary degrees from other universities, including the University of Aberdeen and King’s College London, where the Sultan holds an Honorary Law Doctorate awarded to him in 2011.

All of these institutions have so far refused to reconsider their initial decision to uphold the honorary degrees.

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