Shame on the Sultan of Brunei for Turning Employees Into Human Shields (Guest Column)

Newscom; DAVID MCNEW/Reuters/Corbis

Claiming a boycott of Dorchester hotels is only hurting its employees is a smoke screen designed to hide criticism of a brutal regime, writes a Human Rights Campaign executive.

The Dorchester Collection repeatedly has tried to respond to criticism ever since its owner, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, began to implement draconian penal code reforms that could lead to the violent repression -- and even stoning -- of women and LGBT people.

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But out of everything the beleaguered company has attempted, none is as shameless and desperate as its most recent approach: using its employees as human shields to deflect criticism of the sultan and his horrific new policies.

Dorchester first put forward a bullying defense: “I feel totally unfairly picked on,” said the company’s CEO, Christopher Cowdray. Next came pointing the finger at others: “Your shirt probably comes from a country that has human rights issues,” said Cowdray. He then claimed that actions against the company would hurt “a local business” and added that he didn’t have any opinion about the new laws.

Of course the laws are wrong. So too is the claim that an international company with thousands of staff and 10 properties worldwide is truly a local business. And being picked on? We think the safety and welfare of women and LGBT people are a far greater concern than the feelings of a corporate CEO bankrolled by a sultan.

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The fundamental truth is that profits from these hotels belong to a regime that could start stoning women and LGBT people as soon as next year. The only person truly responsible for the situation is the sultan himself.

Regardless, Dorchester has said that its employees are the “victims” of these actions and that only they would feel the financial impact of Americans taking business elsewhere. Now the company has begun to parade employees -- some of whom would be subjected to the laws in Brunei -- and their stories into the media and online.

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The ploy comes despite assurances that the company has guaranteed the jobs, income, gratuities and benefits of all of its employees during the controversy. This stands in stark contrast to its claim that actions against the sultan’s hotels will result in a big income loss for its staff. Its leadership is talking out of both sides of their mouths. Given the guarantees, how will its staff actually be impacted?

We urge Hollywood to see past this smokescreen. With $20 billion in the bank, the sultan can afford to support his employees. But what his company cannot afford to do -- if it wishes to fix its badly damaged reputation -- is continue to shamefully use its employees in a deceptive effort to shield the sultan from criticism.

Jeff Krehely is vice president and chief foundation officer at the Human Rights Campaign.