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21 JCR Presidents sign open letter calling on university to revoke Sultan of Brunei’s honorary degree

The letter argues that, by refusing to revoke the honour, “the University is supporting mass Human Rights violations, associating itself with the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, and failing to take a necessary stand in solidarity with its students.”

A group of JCR Presidents and representatives have signed an open letter calling on the University to revoke the Sultan of Brunei’s honorary doctorate following the announcement of new laws making homosexuality punishable by stoning to death.

In the letter, the JCR Presidents write: “We the undersigned, are writing this letter, in conjunction with attempts from Oxford SU and a petition with support of over 57,000 individuals to express the view that the honorary degree in Civil Law awarded to the Sultan of Brunei in 1993 should be rescinded.

“The arguments for this are threefold and reflect the impact that his continued possession of this honour have. Firstly, on a university level, the University’s failure to oppose the developments in Brunei will be directly seen by its student body, particularly its LGBTQ+ community, as a refusal to acknowledge the horrific impact the new laws will have.

“Secondly, on a national level the University’s inability to call out oppression and violence will not go unnoticed by those who look to it as a forerunner in representing the values of tolerance and liberty – and damage to the University image will serve as a barrier to prospective students from diverse backgrounds.

“The third impact is international and relates to the ethos and teachings of all Oxford law degrees: For the University to stand by, and through its omissions, support these blatant violations of Human Rights and International law, is in no way acceptable.”

The letter further argued that: “The international prestige of Oxford University places it in a prime position to call out oppression in whatever form it takes.

“A collective of other institutions and individuals are already showing anger and disdain at the creation of these new laws. Both Kings College London and the University of Aberdeen are reviewing the honorary degrees held by the Sultan at their institutions.”

According to the letter, by refusing to revoke the honour “the University is supporting mass Human Rights violations, associating itself with the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community, and failing to take a necessary stand in solidarity with its students.”

It concluded that “As senior officers to the University, we ask that you do everything within your power to ensure the University rescinds the Sultan’s honorary degree. The eyes of the world, the eyes of the LGBTQ+ community suffering in Brunei, and the eyes of the students under your care are upon you.”

The letter was signed by JCR representatives from Corpus Christi, Jesus, Pembroke, Merton, Brasenose, St Edmund Hall, St Catherine’s, St Peter’s, Magdalen, Keble, University College, Somerville, Regents Park, Oriel, St John’s, Mansfield, Lincoln, Hertford, New, Christ Church, and St Anne’s. The full letter can be read here.

Speaking to Cherwell, Corpus Christi College JCR President Rhiannon Ogden-Jones said: “After hearing of the new laws in Brunei, I was upset. To then hear they were introduced by a man with an honorary law degree from Oxford, I was shocked. Oxford University is one of the international forerunners for Human Rights education, and this is reflected by the subject’s inclusion in the University’s Law degrees, including the Civil Law (BCL).

“Every part of the academic field of law is marked by the importance of Human Rights, which prevents horrific violations to individual integrity on an internationally endorsed scale.

“In failing to revoke the honorary BCL held by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the University not only contradicts its position as a forerunner in Human Rights research, but also lends credibility to the violation of International Human Rights law. Even if the University were not involved, the reprehensible nature of the Human Rights violations would draw our condemnation, and we will not sit idly by as people suffer unimaginable abuses.”

Jesus College JCR President Ed Lawrence added that: An honorary degree isn’t anyone’s right – it’s a privilege granted by the University, and will be seen as a stamp of approval on the Sultan’s actions.

If an institution representing the height of intellectual thought has endorsed the Sultan’s academic merits, then what message does that send to those questioning his government’s decisions?

It’s hard to imagine what one would need to do to fall short of an honorary degree in an area of law, if introducing the stoning of gay people isn’t enough.

In 1985, the University refused to give an honorary degree to Margret Thatcher because of her cuts to higher education. It’s always hard to compare issues, but I think it’s fair to say Oxford’s LGBTQ+ community won’t be feeling highly valued if the Sultan gets to hold onto his.”

Despite a statement on Wednesday saying that it had not made any new decision regarding the Sultan’s honorary degree, the university has today announced that it will review it, following a petition signed by more than 56,000 people and calls by the Student Union for its revocation.

Pressure on the university reached a crescendo yesterday as both of Oxford’s MPs, Layla Moran and Anneliese Dodds, urged Oxford to revoke the degree. The MPs wrote “It is time to listen to your University community and your conscience.”

They continued: “It is not enough simply to pay lip service to advocating for LGBTQ+ rights. Refusal to rescind the honorary degree to many people implies a tacit endorsement of Brunei’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance and a failure to stand up for the rights of the international LGBTQ+ community.”

Speaking to presenter Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today programme, journalist and former Oxford student Owen Jones spoke in support of the petition: “Oxford University shouldn’t be handing out honorary degrees to despots and dictators anyway, but Oxford University now has to make a statement that gay lives matter by stripping this.

“There are other problems as well, for instance the fact that there’s huge amounts of money from the Saudi royal family, another regime which, of course, kills gay people. For the Ashmolean museum and Said business school – Saudi money ploughed in there.”

Robinson replied: “Which may be one reason they’re a little nervous.”

Jones argued that the University should go further than a review: “They need to make clear that they stand with gay people and that means they need to immediately rescind it. Aberdeen University have also given an honorary degree to the Sultan, and they’ve said they’re reviewing it. That’s not good enough either.

“There are lots of gay students from all over the world at Oxford University. They need to know that their university, which has huge international kudos, is prepared to make a statement, prepared to make a stand.”

The Sultan’s son and heir Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah graduated from Magdalen College in 1997.

The University has been contacted for comment.

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