October 10, 2015 at 12:30 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
State Department: TPP will ‘advance human rights’

Sultan of Brunei, Hassanal Bolkiah, sharia, anti-gay, gay news, Washington Blade

The Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah has come under criticism for a new penal code that would impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of homosexuality. His country is among those poised to join the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. (Photo by the Presidential Press and Information Office of kremlin.ru; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A State Department official on Friday said a controversial trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 other Pacific Rim countries would further advance human rights in the region.

“We believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will greatly aid the efforts to advance human rights in the Asia-Pacific region,” the official told the Washington Blade.

The official spoke with the Blade less than a week after negotiators who had gathered in Atlanta came to an agreement on TPP.

The final text of the agreement has yet to be released, but the White House says TPP would eliminate more than 18,000 tariffs that countries place on American exports.

The Obama administration notes TPP contains new labor and environmental standards, protects the intellectual property of multinational corporations and prioritizes “transparency and anticorruption.” New York Congressman Gregory Meeks told the Blade earlier this year that TPP also contains “enforceable standards” with regards to human rights.

Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam would join TPP if they ratify it.

Homosexuality remains criminalized in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei.

Brunei — which is located on the island of Borneo — last year began to implement a new legal code based on Sharia law that punishes those convicted of homosexuality by stoning them to death.

Malaysia’s highest court in February upheld former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction under the country’s anti-sodomy law. The same tribunal on Thursday overturned a landmark ruling that declared unconstitutional a state law banning Muslim men from wearing women’s clothes in public.

“It is inexcusable that we are marching toward giving these countries preferential access to our markets without ensuring the most basic human rights protections for their citizens,” Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, told the Blade on Friday in response to the State Department official’s comments in support of TPP. “Ratifying a deal with these countries is tantamount to abdicating our role as leaders in promoting human rights and freedom. We will have said that corporate profits are more urgent than the lives of everyday people in these countries. That is abominable and the American public deserves better than platitudes and pinky swears.”

Davis has also argued against TPP because he contends it would increase the cost of antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV and make them less available in countries that become part of the trade agreement.

“We have not seen evidence that the TPP includes any mechanism for promoting LGBTI rights in countries like Malaysia and Brunei, where queer people are criminalized,” Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBT researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Blade on Friday. “More importantly, we are deeply concerned about its impacts on some of the most marginalized LGBTI people in Asia: Those who are poor and HIV-positive, and who may have difficulty accessing affordable medication under TPP’s enhanced patent protections for life-saving pharmaceuticals.”

Thilaga Sulathireh, founder of Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian advocacy group, was equally as skeptical of the State Department official’s comments in defense of TPP.

“TPP affects everyone regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics,” Sulathireh told the Blade, referring to access to health care, food and other basic needs. “It affects our fundamental human rights.”

The Human Rights Campaign and the National Center for Transgender Equality earlier this year were among the advocacy groups that urged the White House to “require Brunei to address its human rights violations” ahead of any additional TPP negotiations. U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) earlier this year in a letter to President Obama raised similar concerns about the inclusion of the Asian sultanate and Malaysia in the trade agreement.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this week came out against TPP.

“We look forward to reviewing the agreement when it is available,” HRC spokesperson Kerry Brodie told the Blade on Friday.

Secretary of State John Kerry in August raised Anwar’s case with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during his visit to the country’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. The State Department has also repeatedly criticized the Bruneian government over its new penal code.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on Thursday during his speech at the annual Log Cabin Republicans dinner in D.C. criticized President Obama over his response to Anwar’s case.

“We will continue to take a global leadership role in defending and promoting the human rights of LGBTI persons in TPP partner countries and around the world,” the State Department official told the Blade.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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