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The NhRP in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and India

By Lauren Choplin

In May, as part of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s international outreach, NhRP President Steven M. Wise and NhRP Executive Director Kevin Schneider visited Hong Kong, Malaysia, and India to discuss the NhRP’s work and connect with others interested in seeking actual legal rights for nonhuman animals in their respective countries. It was an extremely busy and productive trip, right in the middle of which New York Court of Appeals Judge Eugene Fahey issued an extraordinary opinion in our chimpanzee rights cases (let me once again thank Steve and Kevin for reviewing the opinion at 1 a.m. from Kuala Lumpur!).

Among many other activities, Steve and Kevin participated in the third annual Global Animal Law Conference, which brought together global animal law academics and attorneys over two days. Steve gave a lecture about the NhRP’s work at the Malaysia Bar Council, and Kevin and Steve met with numerous lawyers and activists interested in seeking personhood and legal rights for nonhuman animals in Malaysia, including a well-known human rights lawyer and FOTO Malaysia’s Upreshpal Singh, who has rumbled for rights with us on behalf of an elephant named Lasah.

In India, Steve and Kevin met with a retired Indian Supreme Court Justice who wrote the Nagaraja opinion (in which nonhuman animals were seen as “persons” with fundamental legal rights) as well as with a young lawyer who wrote a law review article about the case and the barrister who argued the case. They attended a meeting organized by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO) in Delhi to discuss the filing of a legal rights lawsuit of behalf of an elephant. Some talented lawyers, including Queens Counsel Raj Panjwani, attended this meeting, and Kevin and Steve gladly jumped into the debate and offered any assistance they might need. Later, they met with Justice Manmohan Singh, who was kind enough to discuss his motivations behind his decision as a Delhi High Court Judge that birds in India have the legal right to fly. The NhRP looks forward to talking further and/or working with all these individuals and groups!

After Steve and Kevin got back, I asked them a few questions about their trip. Their responses (and some photos!) are below:

Kevin and Steve in Selangor, Malaysia outside the Batu Caves and the largest Hindu statue in the world.

What was the most exciting part of your trip?

Kevin: For me, it was being in China for the first time and taking in Hong Kong. Set against this backdrop, it was exciting to meet so many new people and see many familiar faces all working on diverse aspects of animal protection around the world. Over the past few years, I have noticed a marked increase in interest in animal issues in Asia, and given the importance of the region to future trade and political developments, it felt like just the right time for us all to be meeting on the doorstep of mainland China to discuss, among other things, the potential for treating nonhuman animals as true rights-bearers in Asia.

Steve: The most exciting part was meeting the judges and lawyers involved with recognizing that nonhuman animals have legal rights under Indian statutes and its Constitution.

NhRP President Steven M. Wise talks to a long-tailed macaque outside of Malaysia’s Batu Caves.

What was the most unexpected part of your trip?

Steve: Our meeting with a Malaysian lawyer who seemed committed to what we are doing and to doing the same thing in Malaysia.

Kevin: How hilly Hong Kong is! Also, I learned from good friend and NhRP collaborator Chris Green, who was at the conference representing the Harvard Animal Law & Policy Program, that Beijing has something like 180 vegan restaurants, far more than any other city I’ve seen and more evidence of the oft-underappreciated awareness in Asia around animal issues, which has existed in some form for two millennia and which is rapidly growing as environmental, social, and rights issues become more acute.

We also did not expect Judge Fahey’s opinion, which makes clear that each of the three intermediate appellate courts that have ruled against the NhRP were wrong and represents the first time a US high court judge has rejected the legal thinghood of chimpanzees. When we learned of the opinion, we were headed back to our hotel in Kuala Lumpur at like 1 a.m., hitting roadblocks set up for election that day. I got an email alerting me, and when I told Steve it was a denial, he said, “Don’t even tell me; I’ll read it tomorrow.” Then I read a couple lines and said from backseat of the car, “Wait! This is a big deal.” Then we spent the next few hours working.

Steve reviewing Judge Fahey’s opinion at 1 a.m. in his hotel room in Kuala Lumpur.

What do you expect to result from this trip?

Kevin: We made connections that are already bearing fruit, saw old friends, and made new ones, in every place that we went. We expect to see new working groups and existing organizations begin to seriously take up the fight for nonhuman rights in their countries, for example educating the legal profession in South Korea, and laying the foundations for a test case in India. As always, we are here to support however we can, and we expect to see our own international efforts expand over time as more lawyers and volunteers get involved.

Steve and Kevin on Malaysia’s Earth Matters radio show.

What is it like to return to the US after meeting so many people who are excited about nonhuman rights?

Steve: It confirms my belief that we at the NhRP are on the leading edge of a worldwide movement to gain legal rights for nonhuman animals and that there is an enormous amount of interest and support around the world.

Kevin: The timing of our trip was interesting for lots of reasons, and it seems everywhere we went we were in the midst of current events, from trade and diplomatic talks swirling around China, to the historic elections in Malaysia that saw a new party come to party for the first time in the history of the country, to elections in the southern Indian state of Karnataka that coincided with Steve’s talk there at the National Law School in Bengaluru, the capital of that state. In the context of all this human drama, people everywhere we went were nonetheless also concerned with the issues facing animals. This gives me optimism because indeed the only way we can truly create meaningful change for nonhumans is to work through human issues as well.

Anyone you’d like to thank?

Kevin and Steve: Thank you to all the organizers and sponsors of the Global Animal Law Conference and our hosts at Hong Kong University; it was a fantastic event from beginning to end, full of important and interesting speakers and delicious vegan fare, set against the striking and dramatic scenes of Hong Kong. Thank you to Erich Beck for his continued support and for taking the time to meet with us in Kong Kong. Big thank you to Jacinta Johnson-Chan for her assistance in Malaysia, including showing me and Steve the sights around Kuala Lumpur (including the long-tailed macaques at Batu Caves) as well as the Bar Association and the Make It Right Movement and Brickfields Asia College for hosting us. And in India, we’re thankful to the folks at FIAPO including their director Varda Mehrotra for putting together an illuminating panel discussion on nonhuman rights in India involving many human rights organizers and lawyers. We’re also thankful to Sandeep Sibal (and his family for hosting me in Mumbai!), Sonia Shad, and the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru for hosting us, and Mumbai lawyer/activist Ambika Hiranandani who set up our meetings with the judges in Delhi. Also all the judges, lawyers, and writers who took the time to sit down with us while we were in India. These conversations added tremendously to both our knowledge of legal developments in the country as well as our optimism for the future.

Local activists Natasha Lee, Jacinta Johnson-Chan, Steve, and Kevin outside of Petrona Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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