On Monday, the Supreme court of the State of New York admitted the claim of an animal defence group who demanded the liberation of two chimpanzees for the mere reason that these animals would actually have the fundamental right to be free. Various media outlets broadcast this decision worldwide describing it as an important step in the regulation of human/animal relationships.
They were both right and wrong. Wrong because the judge who rendered the decision insisted the following day on the fact that the sentence was intended to have a mainly technical impact. The goal was to set and audience for the parties to expose their views (nothing more). But if that decision was so widely broadcast, it is also for good reasons.
For many years now, we witness a real political, legal – and more recently judicial – groundswell aiming at limiting the discretion human beings previously enjoyed in their relationship with animals. A lot has been said regarding the recent decision of the French Asssemblée Nationale to recognize animals as sentient beings. But France – as all the other European States – had already recognized this particularity since 2007, when they revised the main European treaties. The World Trade Organization, which had long been resistant to recognize the legitimacy of any limitation to international trade based on animal welfare, recently recognized that the European Union was entitled to refuse the importation of Seal products in the name of the cruelty seal hunt inevitably implies. At a judicial level, things are evolving rather quickly as well. Animal rights groups are today looking, not only to condemn ill treatments of the animals at the hands of human beings, but the very right of these humans to hold them captive. It is this argument that the Unitedstasean judge accepted to hear – and it is indeed a first. The holders of the animals (in this case laboratory animals) will have to justify why they think these animals can be held captive. This does not mean that the court recognizes them a “right to freedom”, but it could be a first step towards it.
Other courts and tribunals have already been confronted to the same questions in the past. In Argentina, the highest criminal jurisdiction has for example recognized that animals were entitled to rights as “nonhuman persons” and invited the lower courts to take this element into account in their decisions to come.
All these elements prove that the decision rendered by the Unitedstasean court this Monday is not isolated. It is only the tip of a much deeper wave. From Brussels to New York via Buenos Aires, human beings seem every day less at ease with the relationship they entertain with nonhuman animals. The usual binarity between human and animal, the airtight barrier human societies – especially Western and Christian ones – have patiently built between nature and culture, seems to slowly crumble. To throw the animals in the realm of simple objects, deprived of any will, sensibility and autonomy, is a fiction a growing part of our contemporaries find hard to accept. At the same time, it is clear that a model in which human beings renounce to exercise any power on the animals is out of immediate reach.
Present day societies currently seem paralyzed by the stake – which is indeed major. In a binary system in which what is not animal is human, every modification of the first pole has a direct repercussion on the other. To define what an animal is, automatically impacts what humans are. And that is perhaps the core of the issue.
Isn’t time to reject the binarity of the model and to embrace a vision in which animals and humans share the same continuum of rights, each having the necessary protection to fulfil its needs? What good does it make to defend the exclusivity of one’s fundamental rights? The extension of fundamental rights to new groups never undermined the rights of those who were previously exclusively protected. If anything, the opposite seems to be true. In the end, to better protect the animal might even be an efficient way to improve the protection of the humans.
Vincent Chapaux – April 2015