Beverly Hills Hotel Becomes Flash Point for Human Rights Protest

While the country of Brunei faces strong criticism for implementing a harsh Islamic legal code, one of the world's most famous luxury hotels is suffering the consequences of that decision because it is owned by Brunei dictator Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Among the groups pulling their events from the hotel? A local real estate association.

While the country of Brunei faces strong criticism for implementing a harsh Islamic legal code, one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels—owned by Hassanal Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei—is suffering the consequences. Among the groups pulling their events from the hotel? Local real estate and bar associations.

One of California’s most iconic hotels has found itself at the center of a geopolitical debate. And now at least two associations are joining the protest.

The Beverly Hills/Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors (BHGLAAR) announced this week that it is canceling its annual gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel, joining a number of charities and high-profile celebrities who are distancing themselves from the property—most notably Jay Leno and his wife, Mavis, the cochairs of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Global Women’s Rights Awards, which was to be held at the hotel this past Monday. And on Tuesday, the Beverly Hills Bar Association announced that it would move its June 3 California Supreme Court luncheon to another hotel.

The problem? The hotel is managed by the Dorchester Collection, a luxury-hotel group owned by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the dictator of the Southeast Asian country of Brunei. In recent months the oil-rich nation’s human rights record has come into question as Brunei has implemented a harsh Islamic criminal code—even for citizens who aren’t Muslim.

The first phase of the legal code, implemented last week, calls for fines or jail time for those who fail to attend Friday prayers, engage in indecent behavior, or become pregnant outside of marriage. Under the code’s second phase, according to the Los Angeles Times, violent punishments will be meted out for property crimes. In the final phase, to be implemented in late 2015, death by stoning for homosexual acts or adultery will be permitted.

“Brunei is showing its feudal characteristics as an 18th-century state rather than an important member of a regional Southeast Asian economic and social consensus in the 21st century,” Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said of the country’s new penal code, according to Time.

Joining the Fray

In the United States, the protest has centered on the Beverly Hills Hotel, leading to the cancellation of several major events there, including an Oscars party. Beyond Leno, celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson are protesting the hotel’s ownership. Actor Stephen Fry also revealed he canceled a stay at another Dorchester hotel in protest.

BHGLAAR took action in part because of concerns raised by members, according to CEO Edward Segal. This marks the first time the group has canceled an event over human rights concerns—and, he said, that reflects something of a new reality for event planners.

“In the past, our main considerations in deciding where to hold events have been cost, location, availability, perks, parking, capacity, etc.,” Segal said in an email interview. “Going forward, it is obvious that in this day and age, all organizations should now consider taking into account additional factors and issues, such as human-rights-related topics, that may not have even been on their radar screens before when considering where to hold events. The positions organizations take on such matters can send important and powerful messages to members and the public about an association’s values and priorities.”

Segal called Brunei’s laws “an affront to human rights” and said that BHGLAAR’s role in the local real estate community—the group represents more than 7,000 real estate agents throughout the region—makes it imperative that the association’s opinion be “heard loud and clear on this critical issue.”

The group says that member reaction to the move has been positive so far.

The Beverly Hills Bar Association noted that its decision to move the high court lunch and other events from the hotel is entirely about the property’s owner. “The BHBA regrets any adverse impact this decision may have on the management and staff of the hotel, with whom the BHBA has enjoyed a good and positive professional relationship for many years,” the group said in a statement reported by Variety.


(photo by Alan Light/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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