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Building An International Nonhuman Rights Movement

By Shirley Shtiegman

Today, all over the planet, nonhuman animals are treated as mere “things” under the law—incapable of possessing even a single right—despite growing scientific evidence of their rich emotional and social lives. And while so many of us share a deep respect and fascination for nonhuman animals, the sad truth is that we humans routinely exploit them in the worst ways and in dizzying numbers, and it remains difficult to defend and protect their interests as courts and legislatures invariably defer to human interests.

The good news: people in countries all over the world are working to end the “thinghood” of nonhuman animals and finally deliver to them a taste of real justice. Indeed, internationally, the question of whether nonhuman animals should enjoy legal rights is taking on greater urgency than ever before.

In the United States, the movement to secure nonhuman rights is led by the Nonhuman Rights Project under the direction of attorney Steven M. Wise. The NhRP has been working to secure nonhuman rights in the US for over a decade, much of that time spent researching possible legal approaches in every US state and gathering scientific evidence of nonhuman animals’ cognitive and emotional complexity. Especially now that we’re a few years in to our litigation and beginning to expand into issue-oriented campaigns, we’re excited to collaborate internationally with groups of dedicated attorneys and activists, sharing our knowledge and experience and assisting in every way possible in the development of rights-based litigation and campaigns suited to each country’s legal system.

Progress is being made.

A wonderful example is a recent case from Argentina modeled on the NhRP’s work in the US. In response to a habeas petition filed by an Argentinian organization (AFADA) on behalf of Cecilia the chimpanzee, then held in captivity in the Mendoza Zoo, Judge María Alejandra Mauricio ruled in November 2016 that Cecilia was a “nonhuman legal person” who possesses the right to be free and ordered her transfer to a sanctuary in Brazil where her fundamental legal rights can be respected.

What makes Cecilia’s case different from typical “animal welfare” cases is the recognition that a nonhuman animal can be a legal person; in court, only legal persons have rights. As Judge Mauricio explained: “[We] recognize and affirm that primates are persons as subjects of non-human rights and that they have a catalog of fundamental rights
 It is not a question of granting them the rights that human beings possess, but to accept and understand once and for all these beings are living sentient beings, who are subjects of rights and who [possess], among others, the fundamental right to be born, to live, to grow and to die according to their species.”

How We Work Internationally

Attorneys from around the world regularly contact the NhRP with an interest in pursuing legal rights for nonhuman animals, and we are always thrilled at the opportunity to work together to help build a worldwide nonhuman rights movement. The first step is the gathering of minds: the lead attorney who contacts the NhRP uses her connections to reach out to other attorneys, interns, and law students in her country to form a group of dedicated professionals willing to invest time and effort in comprehensive legal research, which can take months if not years.

Once a group is established, the team works on a set of preliminary questions provided by the NhRP. These questions are meant to explore that specific legal system and determine possible approaches to securing nonhuman personhood and rights, including habeas corpus petitions and other litigation vehicles, or public policy/legislative initiatives. Among the foundational questions, we ask: do the terms “legal personhood” or “legal personality” exist, and, if so, what do those terms mean? Does “personhood” mean the capacity to possess legal rights? Is there legislation covering habeas corpus procedures? What are the most advantageous forums to use to gain legal personhood or its equivalent? What legal actions, such as the writ of habeas corpus, can be pursued to gain legal personhood? The group divides the preliminary questions among themselves, allowing sufficient time to explore each question. It took Steve many years to determine the most suitable (and most likely to be successful) legal approach and venue in the US; because of the novel and complex nature of true nonhuman rights cases, comprehensive research and preparation are crucial.

An initial report summarizing the group’s findings is then shared with the NhRP, who in return provides feedback and suggestions. Once the comprehensive research is completed, the group establishes the kind of media outreach and political efforts necessary to advance their goals, preparing the best possible soil for planting the first seeds of actual legal rights for nonhuman animals in that country.

Below is an overview of this research to date. Note that we set out whether each country is a “common law” country or a “civil law” country. In general, judges in common law jurisdictions have far more flexibility to “make new law,” particularly in the context of habeas corpus (which has long been regarded as the fundamental bulwark against arbitrary deprivations of rights). So, in general, we would expect common law countries to be more promising venues for litigation. That being said, Argentina is a civil law jurisdiction, and that did not stop Cecilia from begin declared a “nonhuman legal person,” suggesting that when it comes to recognizing the justice of nonhuman rights, where there’s a will there’s a way.


System of law: Civil law.
Judge-made laws: The judge has to apply the law and therefore he or she has the power to interpret the rules. The higher courts (cours d’appel) and the supreme courts (court de cassation et conseil d’état) bring out some interpretations that are usually followed by the lower courts, but the lower courts have no obligation to follow such interpretations, and the interpretation of law of the higher court themselves may change.
Legal personhood/rights: The civil code and rural code recognize nonhuman animals as “sentient living beings.” Domestic animals and wild animals who are caged or tamed have to be well treated according to their needs. However, this remains theoretical.
Constitutional relevance: The constitution protects the right to have a healthy environment, the right of sustainable development, and the right of future generations. Nonhuman animals are not expressly quoted in the environmental charter but they are part of our environment.
Current goal: Taking action in the administrative court for the recognition of legal personhood and rights.
Primary contact: Arielle Moreau, Attorney, One Voice.


System of law: Common law.
Judge-made laws: Indian courts are gradually taking up the role of a law-maker rather than a mere interpreter of the law.
Legal personhood/rights: In 1884 the Lahore High Court held that a mosque is a juristic person, and in 1925 a pre-independent Indian court designated a Hindu Idol as a person with the capacity to sue. A 1969 Indian Supreme Court verdict held that the consecrated Idol in a Hindu temple is a juristic person, and in 2000, the Indian Supreme Court held that the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a sacred book, is a “juristic person.” In 2017, the Uttarakhand high court in India recognized the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers as “living entities” (functionally similar to the status of “legal personhood”) with fundamental legal rights. The Uttarakhand court ruled, “It is well settled and confirmed by the authorities on jurisprudence and Courts of various countries that for a bigger thrust of socio-political-scientific development evolution of a fictional personality to be a juristic person became inevitable. This may be any entity, living inanimate, objects or things.” In another judgment that followed soon thereafter, the Uttarakhand court declared “the Glaciers including Gangotri & Yamunotri, rivers, streams, rivulets, lakes, air, meadows, dales, jungles, forests wetlands, grasslands, springs and waterfalls” a legal person, with all corresponding fundamental or legal rights, duties and liabilities, in order to preserve and conserve them.
Constitutional relevance: Article 51(g) of the Indian Constitution casts fundamental duties on every citizen to have compassion to all living animals. In addition, Article 48-A of the Constitution places a duty on the State to “endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wild life of the country.” Indian courts have relied on these articles and issued various pro-animal judgments, including upholding a ban on the trading of ivory, the prohibition on the entry and slaughter of camels in the state of Karnataka, a ban on bullfighting in Goa, a ban on camel rides in Mumbai, implementation of protective measures in relation to using animals in films, the prevention of the illicit trade of birds, upholding the ban on training and exhibition of certain animals, and improvement in the welfare of animals at the Byculla Zoo in Mumbai. In recognizing personhood for the above-mentioned rivers, the Indian Supreme Court explained that “there is utmost expediency to give legal status as a living person/legal entity to Rivers Ganga and Yamuna r/w Articles 48-A and 51A(g) of the Constitution of India.” These Articles of the Constitution may similarly apply to elephants as wildlife.
Current goal: Like the Ganga river, elephants have been worshiped in India for centuries. A sacred animal in Hinduism and a symbol of mental strength, earthiness and responsibility, the elephant represents the living incarnation of the god Ganesh, one of the most important gods. As the historian Heinrich Zimmer said: “In A Passage to India, elephants are a symbol of India itself.” Thus, we believe that the approach to securing legal personality for rivers may be used to gain fundamental rights for elephants.
Primary contact: Priyasha Corrie, Attorney.


System of law: Common law.
Judge-made laws: Although the Israeli legal system can pride itself on its progressive animal welfare laws, it has not yet reached the point of recognizing the legal personhood of nonhuman animals. However, since the Israeli Supreme Court is well known for the liberal and active role it plays in shaping Israeli law, it is worth exploring the possibility of filing a petition for legal personhood here.
Constitutional relevance: Whether Israel has a constitution is debatable, but there is a set of Fundamental Laws that takes priority over other laws, and the Fundamental Law discussing rights such as life and liberty is currently reserved for human beings.
Legal personhood/rights: The main law discussing nonhuman animals is the Animal Protection Act of 1994. According to the Act’s explanatory notes, “an enlightened society is measured not only in relation to human beings but also in relation to animals.” Legal personality is typically granted by specific legislation, but it may also be implied by regulation. It may therefore be argued that the various protections granted to nonhuman animals in the Protection of Animals Act implies personhood. Section 7 of the Animal Protection Act permits the appointment of an animal trustee, which is a recognition of a similar concept to that of guardianship, and it may follow that the animals have certain independent rights. Section 14 of the Act calls for the establishment of a fund for the purpose of “concentrating financial resources for education, public relations, guidance, assistance to animal welfare organizations and the promotion of the purposes of this law.” This section can also be seen as an expression of the tendency to recognize the idea of ​​guardianship/loyalty in relation to nonhuman animals. In Amatech 43536-04-13 (Haifa District) Nasser v. State of Israel, S. Fish refers to the issue of the status of animals in trial, and expresses his opinion that it is right that the law advances and recognizes animals as having legal rights at a certain level: “My view is that the law should advance from concepts that reflect compassion only to animals to concepts that will be recognized in that animals have independent legal rights to a certain degree. The legal meaning of such a passage would be that the obligations of humans to animals would not be measured by a demonstration of compassion, but rather according to criteria deriving from the status of stewardship towards them.”
Current goal: The Israeli group is researching further the aforementioned concepts.
Primary contact: Donna Minha, Attorney.

New Zealand

System of law: Common law.
Legal personhood/rights: In 2014, the Te Urewera Act transformed the Te Urewera national park into a legal person, with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” and on March 15th, 2017, New Zealand’s Parliament implemented a treaty recognizing the Whanganui River as a legal person with fundamental rights, including the right to sue. This is a great achievement for nonhuman rights, proving, once again, that legal personhood is not defined by biology nor by the ability to bear duties or responsibilities. On a side note, in 2015 New Zealand also amended its animal welfare legislation “to recognize that animals are sentient” (New Zealand Animal Welfare Amendment Act (No 2) 2015, Amendment to the Animal Welfare Act 1999). The New Zealand government stated that the recognition of sentience in the amendment is merely symbolic, but in the legal world, words are powerful and the inclusion of sentience opens the door for court interpretation of what the word means for purposes of the Amendment. At the same time, the inclusion of “sentient” does not compare to formal recognition that a nonhuman animal is a legal person entitled to certain rights.
Constitutional relevance: None.
Primary contact: The NhRP is actively looking for new contacts!


System of law: Civil law.
Judge-made laws: Judges enjoy very little autonomy and view their role narrowly as that of interpreting the law.
Legal Personhood/rights: The term “legal person” is not defined in the Portuguese legal system. However, some concepts such as “collective persons,” “personality,” and legal “capacity” are defined by the Civil Code, as well as the term “things.” The Civil Code defines animals as “living sentient beings and object of legal protection by virtue of their nature.”
Constitutional relevance: Article 9.Âș, subheading e) of the Portuguese Constitution provide a protection to nature and the environment, and wild animals living in and of the nature are part of the concept of ‘nature.’
Special characteristics: A recent amendment to the Civil Code recognizes nonhuman animals as an autonomous and distinct category of “things.”
Current goal: Since judge-made laws are hardly found, a case regarding nonhuman animals’ legal rights would most likely be referred to the legislature. Thus, the group’s research is focused on securing legislative change by drafting wording for nonhuman rights in legislation as well as making nonhuman animals subjects, rather than objects, of the law in the Constitution.
Primary contact: InĂȘs de Sousa Real.


System of law: Civil law.
Judge-made laws: The Judiciary is expressly bound to the legislated law and their role is viewed as that of interpreting the law.
Legal personhood/rights: Spanish law grants personhood only to natural human persons or to corporations, but not to nonhuman animals, who in the national Civil Code are still considered “things.” In Spain, an amendment to this national Civil Code is necessary in order to grant basic legal rights to nonhuman animals. Under Catalonia Civil Code, “the animals, which are not considered things, are under the special protection of the laws.” Despite this exclusion from the category of “things,” there is no further explanation of what animals are considered to be. Banning bullfighting and wild animals in circuses, Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain, seems to be the most advanced initiative in Spain when it comes to animal protection, but actual legal rights have not yet been extended.
Constitutional relevance: Under Section 45 of the Spanish Constitution, it is the State’s goal to protect the environment and natural resources. On this ground, public authorities can limit human activities in order to protect nature, which include wild animals, but nonhuman animals (wild or not) are the objects of the protection, rather than subjects in their own right, because nonhuman animals are still considered “things” in the Civil Code. If the protection aims to be as legally entrenched as are fundamental rights for humans, then a specific State’s goal commanding public authorities to protect nonhuman animals as sentient beings should be placed in the Constitution.
Current goal: On February 14, 2016, an amendment to the Civil Code was proposed to the national Parliament, aiming to change the legal status of animals from “things” to “sentient beings.” The decision to start the legislative procedure was unanimously approved by the Congress of Deputies. The group believes that this will open the door for a future amendment recognizing nonhuman animals’ fundamental legal rights. Another goal is to amend the Constitution and include protection of nonhuman animals (and not only as part of nature).
Primary contact: Prof. Dr. Benito Alaez Corral, Observatorio Justicia y Defensa Animal

Sweden & Finland

System of law: Civil law. However, the Nordic legal systems have many distinct features which is why they are often classified as a legal family of their own.
Judge-made laws: Courts enjoy little autonomy. Their role as independent courts is limited to interpretation of the law. Courts are not allowed to strike down unconstitutional laws; at most, they can refuse to apply unconstitutional provisions in individual cases.
Special characteristics: Unlike most civil law countries, these countries do not have a Civil Code, but rather, hierarchically categorized individual statutes.
Legal personhood/rights: Since the terms “person” and “thing” are not defined anywhere within the law, legal scholars may play a significant role in such interpretations and provide an admissible source of law. Thus, statutory regulations as well as legal reasoning are the two main factors in the pursuit of nonhuman rights. As Steve writes in his introduction to the Syracuse Law Review‘s animal law book, “It would require not only the acceptance of an animal rights jurisprudence within the legal academy, but a change in public attitude. These would necessitate the publication of law review articles and books and the teaching of animal rights classes.” In Finland, Animal Law courses are taught at two universities: Åbo Akademi University and the University of Eastern Finland.

Constitutional relevance: Section 20(1) to the Finnish Constitution states that “Nature and its biodiversity, the environment and the national heritage are the responsibility of everyone.” Wild animals living in and of the nature are part of the concept of ‘nature’ and enjoy some limited constitutional protections. Domesticated animals, on the other hand, are not within the ambit of the Constitution. If the Finnish constitution were amended to explicitly recognize the value of animals or that they are subjects rather than objects of law, this would have wide-ranging ramifications regarding the interpretation of animal welfare statutes as well as their enforcement.
Current goal: Since change through the courts is not a realistic prospect, the group’s research is focused on legislative change. They are currently drafting wording for nonhuman rights in legislation as well as making nonhuman animals subjects, rather than objects, of the law, in their Constitutions.
Primary contact: Dr. Birgitta Wahlberg.


System of law: Civil law.
Judge-made laws: Judges are expected to interpret the law and, barring special circumstances, not to make new laws.
Legal personhood/rights: In the Civil Code, nonhuman animals are recognized as “not objects” and the “dignity of animals” is mentioned in the Animal Protection Act, but nonhuman animals do not enjoy legal rights.
Constitutional relevance: In 1993, the “dignity of the creature” was added to the Constitution.
Current goal: The Foundation for Effective Altruism (FEA) launched a ballot initiative to enshrine the fundamental rights to life and to bodily and mental integrity for primates in the cantonal constitution of Basel-Stadt.
Primary contact: Jonas Vollmer, FEA.


System of law: Civil law with an administrative, military and judicial (civil and criminal) court structure and a separate constitutional court.
Judge-made laws: The courts only have the authority to rule on legislation and interpret such legislation. Any court ruling would be binding only on the relevant case and would not necessarily mean that it would be binding for future cases, though case law may be used as a secondary source of law for interpretation.
Legal personhood/rights: Legal personality is acquired when it is duly incorporated in accordance with relevant laws. There is a Code on the Protection of Animals (“CPA”) that was enacted in 2004 to ensure that nonhuman animals are protected from cruel treatment including pain, suffering and torture. The term “animal” has not been defined under the CPA; however, domesticated animals, stray animals, wild animals, incapacitated animals, house pets, animal testing, and sheltered animals have been defined.
Constitutional relevance: The Turkish Constitution is the main piece of legislation whereby the right to life, liberty and protection of identity has been defined. Habeas corpus has been covered under the section dealing with the fundamental rights and duties of persons. Pursuant to Article 17, “everybody” has a right of life and a right to protect their moral and material identity. Within this context, there shall be no interference with the body or liberty of any person unless defined under laws. Moreover, without prior consent, no person shall be subject to any scientific trial/experiment whatsoever. Pursuant to Article 19, “everybody” has a right to liberty and security. Any restriction/ detention thereof arising from legal proceedings shall be elaborately defined under laws.
Current goal: The group is focusing on legislative change for recognition of legal personhood.
Primary contact: Gizem Alper, Attorney.

United Kingdom

System of law: Common law.
Judge-made laws: English law is based on a mixture of case law (laws established by judges through the doctrine of precedent), and statute or an “Acts of Parliament” (laws established by Parliament). Once a point of law has been established by Parliament via statute, the courts are not at liberty to overrule or change that law – they can only interpret it pursuant to strict rules of interpretation. However, there are whole areas of law where statute is silent and where the courts are the main source of the law. Thus, English judges are typically pro-active in establishing and advancing case law with the result that judge-made laws are an important and authoritative source of law.
Legal personhood/rights: The common law makes a distinction between persons and things. English law recognizes two categories of persons: natural persons and artificial persons (also known as legal or juristic persons). There has been no case law to expand the meaning of legal persons beyond human beings. Legal or juridical persons are typically entities that represent multiple persons who have common interests, such as companies, partnerships, the EU, and sovereign states. Things are defined negatively as anything that is not a person. Nonhuman animals fall within this category of things. This is relevant as only legal persons can be the subject of actionable legal rights and duties. This concept is reflected in the English court procedural rules. For example, Rule 2.3 of the Civil Procedure Rules defines a claimant as “a person who makes a claim” and a defendant as “a person against whom a claim is made.” In 2015 a claim brought on behalf of two dogs was struck out by reference to CPR 2.3 and on the basis that a dog could not “give instructions for a claim to be brought on its behalf or be liable for any orders made against it.” In the same case, claims brought on behalf of two children were not challenged on this basis (but were struck out on procedural grounds) (Moosun and Ors v HSBC Bank PLC [2015] EWHC 3308 (Ch)).
Current goal: The UK team is in the process of conducting comprehensive research on whether it would be possible, theoretically and practically, to include nonhuman animals in the category of “persons.”
Primary contacts: Hannah Brown and Paula Sparks of the Association of Lawyers for Animal Welfare (ALAW), focusing on the jurisdiction of England and Wales.

Shirley Shteigman is the NhRP's International Coordinator.
Shirley and her former canine companion Miko, whom she rescued 16 years ago. Miko passed away in June 2017.

Shirley Shteigman is the NhRP’s International Coordinator. She works with lawyers from around the world to research the best possible legal path to establishing actual legal rights for nonhuman animals on a country-by-country basis. A corporate transactional lawyer, Shirley has served as General Counsel of a Bay Area tech company and consults on corporate transactional matters. She has long been involved in animal advocacy and volunteers with various animal advocacy organizations in California, Washington, and Israel. She earned her L.L.M. in Israel and is admitted to the bars of New York and Israel. To connect with Shirley, email

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