LONDON – British billionaire Richard Branson urged fellow business leaders on Thursday to use their clout and put pressure on countries such as Brunei that persecute citizens for their sexuality.
Brunei's decision to impose the death penalty for gay sex had spurred the call for action, Branson wrote in a blog posted on Virgin.com. He was joined by 20 other top executives, who put their names to a wider initiative in support of LGBT+ rights.
"Why take action now? The answer is simple. I feel that every opportunity to stand up for what we believe in is a good opportunity to shift the conversation on a global scale," said Branson, who made his fortune from a conglomerate of enterprises bearing the Virgin name.
Paul Polman and John Fallon, chief executives of consumer goods company Unilever and education group Pearson respectively, were among 21 signatories of an initiative supported by Open For Business, a coalition of global firms promoting LGBT+ inclusion.
"It is time for all of us, as business leaders and as human beings, to stand up to ensure that people are free from the fear of abuse for who they love," the 21 signatories wrote.
"This is our responsibility to our employees, to our customers and to communities all over the world."
More than 70 countries worldwide, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, enforce anti-LGBT+ laws.
Brunei, a small Southeast Asian country of about 400,000 people, sparked outcry last month when it rolled out laws penalising sodomy, adultery and rape with the death penalty.
Celebrities, from actor George Clooney to singer Elton John, have galvanised support, with protesters boycotting the Dorchester Collection of hotels, owned by the Brunei Investment Agency.
A growing list of banks, including Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Citi and Nomura, have banned staff from using the hotels.
STA Travel and London's transport network have also begun to cut ties with businesses owned by the sultanate.
In a letter to the United Nations, Brunei has defended the imposition of strict sharia laws, which it began introducing in 2014, as more for "prevention than to punish".
Matt Cameron, managing director of investment industry organisation LGBT Great, called for a boycott of countries that enacted anti-gay and anti-transgender laws.
"The financial services sector is a massive part of the global economy and carries a lot of clout," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I do think there's a responsibility and an accountability for the industry to step up and use its force."
However, Daniel Winterfeldt, a partner in law firm Reed Smith's global capital markets practice, stressed the value of talking with governments, whatever their views.
"Engagement is incredibly important. If you build up a barrier, things can actually get worse," Winterfeldt said.
"When (business leaders) attend high-level meetings with governments, it is important that on their lists of concerns are equality issues."