When Animal Advocacy Is Used As A Weapon
While animal advocates are understandably in favor of restrictions on the use of animals, these laws are occasionally weaponized by movements that don’t actually have the best interests of animals in mind. Different ethnic and religious groups have different beliefs regarding the treatment of animals, and these differences are sometimes exploited in legal systems to repress human rights. This paper looks at two examples of this phenomenon in Brazil and Sri Lanka, where certain animal rights issues are used as a justification for the religious persecution of minority groups.
Brazil has a large population of African descent, and these Afro-Brazilians often follow religious customs originating from West Africa. One of these customs is animal sacrifice. The Brazilian government, which is mostly composed of non-Afro-Brazilians, has grappled with how to square constitutional protections for religious freedoms with animal rights legislation. Afro-Brazilians met with legislators during the debate over a bill that would require “animals required intended for food consumption to be killed ‘quickly and painlessly.’” This vague language, they feared, would be used to single out Afro-Brazilian customs, and they succeeded in getting an amendment added that would exempt them from prosecution.
The debate over this amendment has raged for over a decade. Opponents of the amendment frequently used religiously bigoted language, claiming that animal sacrifice is “primitive” or “not Christian.” Supporters of the amendment countered that these opponents were mostly silent about animals used for food, hunting, or entertainment – that their concern for animal rights seemed to begin and end with Afro-Brazilian religious customs. The case ended up in the State Court of Justice, in which a narrow majority of judges ruled to uphold the amendment.
Since the passing of that bill, attacks on Afro-Brazilians have increased, many of which are clearly religiously motivated. In 2015, a law was proposed that would repeal the amendment, arguing that animals have a constitutional right to life, and this trumped the right of religious freedom granted to Afro-Brazilians. However, the author of this law frequently justified her beliefs about animal ethics based on her Christian faith, and opponents argued that her efforts were suspiciously focused on animal sacrifices, not the millions of animals killed by other human activities in Brazil. The proposed law was found unconstitutional, and protection of Afro-Brazilian animal sacrifices remained in place.
A similar conflict was found on the island nation of Sri Lanka, which is majority-Buddhist but has significant minorities of Muslims and Tamil Hindus. There have been several court cases involving the animal sacrifices practiced by some Tamil Hindus, and in 2018 a law was introduced that, if passed, would ban all animal sacrifices. Academics researching these laws have concluded that the motivation for the laws was prejudice towards Hindus and Muslims on the part of Buddhist nationalists.
Several Tamil refugees in Australia have described the prejudice they face in Sri Lanka at the hands of Buddhists – destruction of temples, harassment, and, in one case, being chased after trying to sacrifice a goat. Human rights reports from governments and NGOs have described a campaign against Sri Lanka’s religious minorities. The government is complicit in many of these attacks, and justifies their position on the fact that another Hindu group, the All Tamil Hindu Congress, is vocally against animal sacrifice. The Buddhist government uses this denouncement as proof that animal sacrifice is not a legitimate practice among Hindus, even though there are many different sects of Hinduism with their own customs. The author concludes that prohibitions against animal sacrifices are one element of a broader campaign against religious minorities in Sri Lanka perpetrated by the government and Buddhist nationalists.
It should go without saying that everyone at Faunalytics finds animal religious sacrifice to be morally wrong. However, the number of animals killed in religious sacrifices pales in comparison to those killed or harmed through agriculture and other human activities. If the goal of these legislators is to reduce animal suffering as much as possible, sacrifices should not be a major focus — it would be much more effective and impactful to legislate on behalf of all animals used for food. Where these laws exist, it’s a reasonable conclusion that they are singled out because of their association with a minority group.
For animal advocates, this is a stark reminder that good causes can be used for bad purposes. Animal advocacy needs to come from a place of compassion, not hatred or intolerance. It is not a victory for animal advocates if animal rights are only used as a bludgeon against persecuted groups, and we need to remain vigilant against this.