Toward International Animal Rights
In Chapter 10 of the 2020 book Studies in Global Animal Law, Dr. Anne Peters uses her many years of experience as a Professor of Law and as the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law Heidelberg (Germany) to present an argument for the strategic approach of focusing on adding animal rights policies at the international level. She argues that the international legal order is flexible enough to bring non-human persons into the fold. Furthermore, she presents the position that adding animal rights could in fact reinforce the non-hierarchical nature of rights, thus complementing human rights as well. To do this, she draws upon several human-centered past examples in international law, in which barriers analogous to those faced by animal rights have been overcome.
One point that Dr. Peters brings up to support her argument is the fact that the industries of animal exploitation (e.g. meat, dairy, and pet production) have all become globalized through transnational supply chains. Therefore, establishing animal rights laws in one country could inadvertently shift abusive practices to another, and put the rights-granting country at an economic disadvantage. It is therefore important to prevent this through international standards. For example, The Treaty on the European Economic Community enacted a legal mandate requiring equal pay for men and women to avoid outsourcing of jobs from one European country to a neighboring one that allowed unequal wages.
Dr. Peters also points out that rights-based laws carry a symbolic, social, procedural, and legal weight that welfare-based laws cannot match. Rights-based laws would require any interferences to animals’ lives to be demonstrably justified in court. This mandatory justification would help prevent practices that violate animals’ fundamental rights to life in the name of non-essential human desire. Furthermore, rights-based laws can be applied to the interests of individual rights-bearing animals, and rights-based laws are better equipped for future expansion. Currently, domestic rights-based laws protecting animals are few and scattered. For example, courts in Argentina and Columbia granted habeas corpus to apes and a bear, whereas similar efforts in the U.S. to grant habeas corpus to chimpanzees have failed in lower courts.
The U.S. and many other domestic courts limit humans from enforcing legal violations that harm the interests of animals unless they can prove that harm has occurred to human or corporate interests. That is, the interests of animals are not legally enforceable for their own sake in these types of court systems. This problem could be circumvented when it comes to international laws, which rely on monitoring and reporting of rule breaks rather than litigious court cases that require defendants to prove that harm came to humans or corporations before prosecuting violations of animal protection laws.
Dr. Peters points out that humans were initially considered “objects” of international law, even into the 20th century. At that time, only countries were considered legal persons in the realm of international law. This meant that even cases that seemed clearly based in human rights were evaluated through other means, e.g. the trade of women and girls was internationally condemned under the justification of protecting “public morality.” Similar reasoning has been applied to animals, e.g. up until the early 20th century, animal abuse was only regarded as a legal harm if it took place in public and thereby harmed public morality. The fact that humans crossed over the border from objects to subjects of international law shows that in theory, it is possible to update the status of animals as well.
Changing the legal status of animals could complement universal human rights. After all, there are many historical precedents in which human rights violations have been justified by “animalizing” humans. This form of justifying unjust treatment works because our society sees animals as objects without rights. For example, animalization was one of the tactics used to justify mass murder during the Holocaust. More recently, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “These aren’t people. These are animals.” in an effort to justify his punitive U.S.-Mexico border policies that many have criticized as inhumane. None of these examples are meant to equate humans and non-human animals. Rather, they point out how allowing violence against animals can end up being used to justify violence towards humans. Giving rights to animals would therefore indirectly prevent human rights abuses by reducing the power of the animalization strategy to strip humans of their rights.
The main call to action presented in this chapter is that of calling upon an international governing body, such as the United Nations, to draft a universal declaration of animal rights analogous to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Such a declaration would then need to be codified into laws by governments around the world. The international rights declaration would serve as a standard against which domestic laws could be held. While a declaration of animal rights was previously drafted in 1978, it was created by a coalition of NGOs and did not become translated into actual laws. Some of the legal rights that are declared as fundamental for humans which would make sense to grant to animals are freedom to life, liberty, and freedom from torture. In the end, these laws would follow the UDHR’s mission of preventing “barbarous acts which [outrage] the conscience of mankind.”
Before finishing the chapter, Dr. Peters validates the critique that efforts to enact animal rights risk becoming entangled with pushing Western values onto other cultures, and unfairly targeting marginalized communities. Indeed, condemning minority groups or indigenous people by calling their treatment of animals “backwards” or “barbaric” has been a strategy used by imperialists across time. Likewise, there have been past instances of discriminatory targeting of minority practices, such as ritual slaughter by Muslims or indigenous hunting of whales/seals, over practices carried out by the majority group that are much larger in scale (e.g. factory farming). It is important to not scapegoat one culture over another for their treatment of animals, and to recognize that all human cultures exploit animals in their daily lives. This is not to say that cultural practices justify cruelty or injustice – e.g., cultural practices such as banning women from pursuing a career are nevertheless worth fighting. Animal rights advocates must be wary of biases and power imbalances when making campaign decisions, while remaining committed to fighting for universal animal rights.
In summary, this chapter highlights the need to push for animal rights policies to be adopted by influential international organizations. While NGOs can lead this charge, a legitimizing international authority group (such as the United Nations) may be needed in order to effectively promote the addition of animal rights laws across countries.