Call for dignity to be the foundation of international animal rights laws

International legal recognition of animal rights or welfare should be based on the concept of dignity in line with the approach taken with international human rights, according to Deakin Law School researchers.

There are no compelling reasons why the concept of dignity, one of the key justifications of human rights law, should not extend to animals, argue researchers from Deakin University’s Law School in a paper published in the current issue of the ‘Michigan State International Law Review’.

“Recognising animal dignity in international law is important in terms of codifying, encouraging and cementing change in societal values,” said co-author Dr Jane Kotzmann, Lecturer in International Law with Deakin Law School.

“There are no compelling reasons why the concept of dignity could not extend to animals. While it’s possible for international law to provide improved recognition and protection for animals without recognising animal dignity, it is suggested that recognition would be reflective of societal shifts from valuing animals based on their worth to human beings to valuing animals based on their own inherent worth.”

Co-author Ms Cassandra Seery from the Faculty of Business and Law said the last seven decades had seen a proliferation of human rights laws initiated to prevent the atrocities of World War II.

“In a similar way to the outrage at the atrocities of World War II, contemporary times have seen a growing awareness of, and horror at, the persecution and killing of animals,” she said.

“For example, in recent times there have been reports of greyhounds being subjected to overbreeding, mass killing, poor conditions and ill-treatment and livestock kept in very small and unnatural spaces, provided with minimal or insufficient food and water, and subjected to painful practices such as branding, cropping, and castration.

[testimonial_text]Despite the systematic and barbaric nature of animal exploitation, much of this practice is within the law and has prompted some to argue for the law to be changed to introduce and improve animal rights and welfare.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Ms Cassandra Seery” details=”Deakin University Faculty of Business and Law”]
Ms Cassandra Seery[/testimonial_picture]

In considering how dignity might apply to animals, the researchers analysed international human rights law and the meaning of human dignity to determine if the concept of dignity could and should provide the basis for the international recognition of animal rights or welfare

They found “the inherent dignity of the human person” was the foundation of modern international rights law and could serve in the same capacity when related to animals. Yet there were some arguments against the concept.

“Arguments often suggest that there is something about being human—rationality, conscience, reason or choice—which is the foundation of dignity and that these traits can only apply to human beings,” Dr Kotzmann said.

“However, it is not clear why these particular characteristics should be the basis of dignity as opposed to other possible attributes such as sentience, which is the ability to feel or sense.

“Further, characteristics such as reason or rationality are not necessarily exclusive to humans or belong to all people. For example, very young people or elderly people experiencing the loss of mental faculties may not have these mental attributes.

“It has also been internationally recognised by neuroscientists that animals have the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours.”

Beyond the conceptual reasons why dignity cannot be exclusive to human beings, Ms Seery said time spent with animals would suggest that they do have dignity.

“Many animals share ‘human’ attributes such as intelligence, emotion and social bonds,” she said.

[testimonial_text]It’s also clear that many animals can experience pleasure, enjoyment, pain, distress, fear, anxiety and suffering. Research also indicates that some animals have the capacity to comprehend and use languages.[/testimonial_text]
[testimonial_picture name=”Dr Jane Kotzmann” details=”Lecturer in International Law with Deakin Law School”]
Dr Jane Kotzmann[/testimonial_picture]

The researchers caution that in developing international law in relation to animals the overriding concern should be the improvement of recognition and protection for animals.

“To achieve these objectives, it’s important to take into account political considerations, including the feasibility of persuading states to support proposed laws,” Dr Kotzmann said.

“If incorporating acknowledgment of animal dignity in any way impedes the passing of laws designed to recognise and protect animals, then it would be better to dispense with such recognition.”

Published by Deakin Research on 11 April 2018

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