The United States is currently involved in negotiations to create a new free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Through the TPP, the United States seeks to enhance trade among member countries, reducing tariffs and facilitating transactions. In order to conclude a final agreement, President Obama has requested – but not yet obtained from Congress – a renewal of trade promotion authority (TPA). TPA would allow the President to negotiate international agreements and would limit Congress to voting yes or no to the final versions, without the power to amend agreements.
Brunei is one of several countries with which the U.S. is negotiating the TPP. Earlier this year, Brunei enacted a new penal code based on Sharia law. The U.S. already has free trade agreements with Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman – all states with Sharia-influenced legal systems. However, Brunei’s penal code reflects what appears to be a particularly harsh form of Sharia.
In the past, members of Congress have been reluctant to support renewal of TPA, citing concerns over transparency, labor rights, and environmental issues, and Brunei’s penal code has also come in for criticism. In a June 12, 2014 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador Michael Froman, a mostly Democratic coalition of 119 House Members noted that Brunei has much to gain from an economic partnership with the US, and urged the U.S. to use that as leverage to condition Brunei’s TPP involvement on Brunei addressing human rights issues implicated by the new penal code.
The United States’ negotiating objectives involve protections for human rights (in the context of forced labor, at least), provided that the administration has a means to raise the issue with other trade partners. Still, Brunei’s new penal code does not appear to be a priority for the U.S. Trade Representative. In a recent agency press release on the status of the negotiations, the issue was not mentioned. Given Congress’ concerns, this silence may not help the President’s TPA renewal agenda.