TPP Talks In Ottawa: Brunei's Brutal Sharia Law Raises Questions About Future Of Trade Deals

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah as the leaders wait for the closing statement at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-Operation Summit in Singapore, Sunday Nov.15, 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah as the leaders wait for the closing statement at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-Operation Summit in Singapore, Sunday Nov.15, 2009.

Ottawa is host this week to the latest round of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-country trading bloc that would include Pacific Rim countries such as Japan and the U.S., and would form the world’s largest free trade area, covering nearly 800 million people.

While Canadian activists have focused on the abnormally high level of secrecy surrounding the latest round of talks, and the potential for controversial, tougher copyright and patent laws, in other parts of the world, the debate is also focusing on some other questions: Do we really want to tie our economic wagon to so many countries, with such diverse politics and attitudes? And what will it mean for us if we do?

Case in point: One of the 12 countries involved in the talks is Brunei. The tiny petro-state of half a million people on the southeast Asian island of Borneo recently adopted harsh new Sharia laws, including the death penalty, by stoning, for adultery, gay sex and insulting the Koran. Other elements of the law include prison sentences for pregnancy outside of wedlock or failing to pray on Friday, and amputations or whipping for theft and drinking alcohol.

The law, which the government of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah started phasing in as of this spring, will apply to all Bruneians, including the 22 percent who aren’t Muslim.

The UN condemned the law as illegal under international law and Amnesty International said it would take the country “back to the dark ages.”

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Still, as other commenters have noted, Canada’s politicians have been silent on this issue.

Not so politicians in other countries. In the U.S., 119 members of Congress, including some Republicans, signed a letter to State Secretary John Kerry urging the U.S. to break off negotiations with Brunei “until [it] revokes its inhumane criminal code.”

Even business leaders and Hollywood stars have gotten in on the controversy. Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno are among the leaders of a campaign to boycott properties owned by the government of Brunei, such as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Billionaire Richard Branson announced his companies will boycott all hotels owned by Brunei.

Shortly before the latest round of talks in Ottawa, the government of Australia, a member of the TPP talks, said it would question Brunei over the new laws, with the country’s trade minister hinting it may not continue trade negotiations.

But ejecting Brunei from the TPP talks could be difficult, as the country is one of the four founding members that launched the initiative.

And here lies the quandary, for the Harper government, the Obama administration and all other TPP negotiators: The conventional wisdom states that free trade is the future, and countries that fail to sign up will grow poorer and less competitive as they lose access to markets. But as free trade areas grow, they will come to encompass more and more countries whose values and politics are at odds with one another.

Anti-TPP activists have been complaining that the latest round of talks in Ottawa has taken the secrecy surrounding the TPP to new heights, and when looked at in the political context of Brunei’s new laws, it becomes easier to understand why. The spectre of Canada signing a free trade agreement with a country that forces Sharia law on Christians must certainly not be appealing to our avowedly Christian prime minister.

But whatever the final shape of the deal, it will have to come into the public light eventually. And when it does, we will have to face the reality that free trade deals have become about a lot more than free trade.

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