LGBT members of Congress question U.S. trade agreement

LGBT members of Congress on Wednesday urged the White House to reconsider its decision to allow two countries with anti-gay rights records to join a U.S.-led pan-Pacific trade agreement.

LGBT members of Congress on Wednesday urged the White House to reconsider its decision to allow two countries with anti-gay rights records to join a U.S.-led pan-Pacific trade agreement.

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.) in a letter to President Obama sought “clarification on the inclusion of” Brunei and Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They specifically referenced the administration’s decision late last year to drop Gambia from a duty-free trade program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to access U.S. markets amid growing concerns over the country’s LGBT crackdown and other human rights abuses.

“In light of the decision to end trade preferences for Gambia, we write today to ask for clarification on the inclusion of Brunei and Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations,” wrote the lawmakers.

Homosexuality punishable by death under new Brunei legal code

Brunei and Malaysia — along with Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam — are the 12 countries that would join the TPP.

Brunei 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 earlier this month upheld former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s conviction under the country’s anti-sodomy law. Homosexuality remains illegal in neighboring Singapore and more than 70 other nations.

Secretary of State John Kerry in December swore in gay U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius.

Pocan, Takano, Cicilline, Maloney and Sinema in their letter to Obama noted that more than 100 members of Congress last year wrote to the White House “urging action be taken to address” human rights abuses in Brunei and Malaysia before moving forward with the TPP.

“To our knowledge, no progress has been made on that front,” they wrote on Wednesday. “Brunei continues to move forward with full implementation of a strict penal code mandating the stoning to death of LGBT citizens; similarly, Malaysia has not taken action to end its persecution of LGBT individuals. Despite these abuses, the administration continues to include them in negotiations around TPP and lists them as intended signatories to the trade agreement.”

The lawmakers in their Wednesday letter further urged the Obama administration to “bring consistency” to its “foreign and trade policy.”

“The LGBT community looks to your administration to fight for human rights across the globe,” they wrote. “We hope you will continue this record of equality by removing Brunei and Malaysia from the TPP if they neglect to address these abuses.”

Polis writes separate letter to Obama over trade agreement

Gay U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) did not sign onto his colleagues’ letter, but the Colorado Democrat on Thursday noted his own concerns over the TPP in a separate correspondence to Obama.

Polis did not urge the White House to remove Brunei and Malaysia from the trade agreement over their respective LGBT rights records. He nevertheless urged the Obama administration to express “in no uncertain terms” to the Bruneian and Malaysian governments during the TPP negotiations that “their violations of basic human rights must end.”

“The diplomatic and economic power of the United States makes us uniquely positioned to advocate for and effect change on behalf of individuals who are persecuted at the hands of other governments,” wrote Polis. “In keeping with this responsibility, I encourage you to use every tool available to you to bring an end to ongoing human rights abuses in Brunei and Malaysia, including the present Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.”

Trade agreement ‘negotiated in secret’

Labor and LGBT advocacy groups remain highly critical of the TPP.

Pride at Work Co-President Shane Larson, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin, National LGBTQ Task Force Deputy Executive Director Darlene Nipper and National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling last June urged the White House to “require Brunei to address its human rights violations in advance of further” negotiations around the trade agreement.

Jerame Davis, executive director of Pride at Work, on Thursday told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview the TPP would also adversely impact the availability of affordable antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV in the countries that join it.

He noted the trade agreement has been “negotiated in secret, behind closed doors.” Davis further pointed out the president would also have the ability to fast track the TPP through Congress without any debate.

“I’m really glad that the LGBT elected members of Congress are stepping up and voicing their concerns about Brunei and Malaysia to be included in the TPP,” Davis told the Blade.

Davis criticized Polis’ position in spite of his Thursday letter to Obama.

“A letter to the president expressing concern is cover to say he’s done something, it’s not actually using the power of his office to stand up for LGBT people being stoned to death in Brunei,” Davis told the Blade. “He’s asking the president to use his powers, but Polis isn’t using the full breadth of his own power here, so why would the president take him seriously?”

Trade agreement not ‘an equal economic partnership

Thilaga Sulathireh, founder of Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian advocacy group, told the Blade in an e-mail her organization’s members “appreciate the concerns” that LGBT members of Congress have raised over the TPP. She added they also “welcome their call to review Malaysia and Brunei’s inclusion” in the agreement because “both countries have very appalling and dire track records on human rights.”

Sulathireh, like Davis, expressed concern over the secrecy of the negotiations around the TPP and the Obama administration’s plans to fast track it through Congress.

“We do not feel that the TPP is an equal economic partnership,” Sulathireh told the Blade.

John Fluharty, the gay executive director of the Delaware Republican Party, previously worked in Malaysia for a pro-democracy non-profit organization.

He highlighted Anwar’s conviction on sodomy charges as he discussed the country’s LGBT rights record with the Blade on Thursday. Fluharty also noted that Malaysian security officials placed him under surveillance while he worked in the country.

“In addition, I found it very disturbing that many of my Malaysian friends who are impacted by issues related to HIV/AIDS felt unsafe seeking medial treatment for fear action by their own government,” he told the Blade. “It is a very sad state of affairs.”

Jeff Tiller, a spokesperson for the White House, on Thursday told the Blade the administration during meetings with senior Bruneian government officials has “made clear that protecting human rights — including the rights LGBT individuals, women and religious minorities — is a core U.S. value and a foreign policy priority.” He added the White House has also stressed that Brunei “should abide by its international human rights obligations and commitments.”

“We will continue to engage closely with Brunei to address this issue, even as we work to conclude TPP,” said Tiller.

Tiller did not provide the Blade with a timeline as to when a deal on the trade agreement may be reached.

The Associated Press on Thursday reported the TPP will likely go before Congress this spring.