Today marks Human Rights Day and the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations to acknowledge the importance of respect for the freedom, equality, and dignity of each individual regardless of “race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.” It is also International Animal Rights Day, launched on the same date to emphasize that we must extend these values and principles to other species if they are to be taken seriously.
As a human rights physician and a civil rights attorney for nonhuman animals, respectively, we believe we will advance and uphold human rights only if we practice the moral and legal consistency required. This must mean recognizing the rights of at least some nonhuman animals.
During the course of our work in human and nonhuman animal rights, we have seen what happens when we do not reliably respect the freedom, equality, and dignity of each individual. Families fleeing violence tear-gassed at the US border. Mass incarceration. Survivors of sexual violence struggling to find the support they need to heal and secure justice. Journalists murdered for speaking out against corruption. And we are regularly reminded that we cannot divorce the suffering exacted on humans caught in an unjust system from the sight of orcas in tanks, chimpanzees in labs, or elephants in chains. Nowhere is this more apparent than in court proceedings where the vulnerable are made more so by their lack of voice and political power, forced to live at the mercy of others in a world where their rights have gone unrecognized or unfulfilled.
To some, it may seem flippant, given current threats to human dignity, to argue that we need to examine how our legal systems treat animals. But this reaction fails to see a fundamental connection: the way we treat any living being affects how we treat another.
We have come a long way since the days of Descartes, who popularized the idea that animals were mere machines. We now know that many animals are autonomous beings with powers of deliberation, imagination, intelligence, empathy, love, and other cognitively complex qualities. When deprived of their physiological, cognitive, and social needs, they also suffer like us, whether from pain or mental disorders such as posttraumatic stress and depression. Given all we know about other animals, we should be further along in our respect for their dignity. But the same problem that plagues marginalized humans—prejudice and disregard for their dignity and suffering—plagues animals as well.
This prejudice is used to rationalize treating animals as rightless “things,” invisible to law. At the same time, human rights remain on shaky ground. We can explain our failure to advance the recognition and enforcement of human rights at least in part by our failure to be legally, scientifically, and morally consistent in terms of who counts under the law. We are merely asking for what ASPCA founder Henry Bergh famously and successfully demanded for a human child, Mary Ellen, in 1874, drawing upon animal protection legislation he had secured several years prior: freedom from confinement, a dignified existence, and justice.
Thankfully, progress is beginning to be made. For example, in May of 2018, a judge on New York’s highest court wrote in the Nonhuman Rights Project’s chimpanzee rights cases that “the issue whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with all the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”
On Dec. 14th, the NhRP will again have the opportunity to argue for the rights of an autonomous animal during a habeas corpus hearing to determine whether the NhRP’s elephant client Happy should be released from her imprisonment at the Bronx Zoo. It is the first such hearing for an elephant.
Far from threatening human rights, consideration of nonhuman animal rights pushes us to look more closely at and maintain the integrity of laws governing the treatment of our fellow human beings. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “Justice denied anywhere diminishes justice everywhere.” The biased and unjust undermining of the rationale for the fundamental rights of nonhuman animals will inevitably severely undermine the rationale for fundamental human rights.
At a time when fundamental rights and principles like liberty and justice are under attack, we cannot succumb to fear and anxiety. We must be bold, push forward, and demand that principles such as liberty, equality and justice be upheld and expanded in a way that is both morally and legally consistent. Society must, at last, fully embrace these principles.