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LGBT Members Of Congress Object To Free-Trade Deal With Countries Criminalizing LGBT People

"These two countries are responsible for severe human rights abuses, including adopting penal codes permitting the imprisonment and physical harm of LGBT people," the representatives write.

Posted on February 18, 2015, at 2:57 p.m. ET

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.
Ahim Rani / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

Five out LGBT members of Congress objected to the inclusion of two countries with anti-LGBT laws in a free trade deal that the Obama administration is currently negotiating and seeking to fast-track it for adoption.

In a letter sent to the president on Wednesday, the members asked why Malaysia and Brunei are part of a trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which also includes several other nations in Asia and Latin America. The Obama administration has been seeking "fast-track" authority from Congress for the deal, which means whatever deal they negotiate is guaranteed an up-or-down vote.

Labor unions and other advocacy groups have long voiced concern that TPP could set too low a bar for signatories, but the pact only became a serious concern for LGBT-rights groups last spring after the sultan of Brunei imposed a version of sharia law that included a punishment of death by stoning for homosexuality along with other sexual offenses. The states of neighboring Malaysia also have criminal sharia codes, and the government is appealing a recent court ruling striking down their provision criminalizing transgender people. The courts of another potential TPP member, Singapore, have recently rejected challenges to its sodomy law, but it was not singled out by the members of congress who signed this letter.

The letter is signed by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI), David Cicilline (D-RI), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Mark Takano (D-CA), five of the six co-chairs of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. The sixth caucus co-chair, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) did not sign the letter, but he sent a separate letter on the issue that his office shared with BuzzFeed News on Thursday.

The five representatives wrote that the negotiations were continuing with Brunei and Malaysia in the wake of the Obama administration's announcement in December that it would kick the Gambia out of a trade pact for African nations, in part because of the country's recent crackdown on LGBT rights.

"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 (TPP) negotiations," the representatives write. "These two countries are responsible for severe human rights abuses, including adopting penal codes permitting the imprisonment and physical harm of LGBT people. It seems inconsistent for the United States to expand trade privileges to these two countries while taking action against Gambia."

In his letter, Polis broke with his colleagues on suggesting that Brunei and Malaysia should be excluded from the agreement. Instead, Polis wrote, "As negotiations over the TPP proceed, I hope you will seize the occasion by expressing to the governments of Brunei and Malaysia in no uncertain terms that there ongoing violations of basic human rights must end."

While President Barack Obama's State Department has given unprecedented priority to LGBT rights a new priority — including creating a new position of special envoy for LGBT rights that is due to be announced later this month — it has been inconsistent in responding to anti-LGBT laws among its allies.

The Gambia was an unusual example of direct sanctions taken in response to anti-LGBT laws, and the U.S. also imposed targeted sanctions on Uganda before a sweeping anti-LGBT law enacted in early 2014 was struck down by its Constitutional Court in August. But several other nations that have anti-LGBT laws retain free trade status. These include Nigeria, which passed a law similar to Uganda's in 2014, and dozens of allegedly LGBT people have been arrested since its enactment.

Here's the complete letter:

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This is the letter sent separately by Rep. Jared Polis:

This post has been updated to include the letter sent by Rep. Jared Polis, which his office shared with BuzzFeed News on Thursday morning.

The Obama administration has sought to fast-track the agreement, but Congress has not granted the administration fast-track authority. A previous version of this story incorrectly said that TPP was being negotiated under the fast-track process.

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