May 29, 2024

Advance for primate rights in Switzerland

Proposal for a referendum advances slowly through the courts

Swiss supporters of animal rights are optimistic about the progress of a referendum on granting nonhuman primates constitutional rights to life and bodily and mental integrity.

In the Canton of Basel-Stadt, supporters of the initiative gathered enough signatures to place it on the ballot in 2016. However, in 2018 the Basel-Stadt Parliament declared that it was invalid. The case then moved to the Cantonal Constitutional Court, which ruled that the referendum proposal was valid and must be put before voters.

Now this judgment has been appealed again, to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. If supporters win, the referendum could take place as early as November this year.

But win or lose, supporters regard the decision of the Cantonal Constitutional Court as a landmark.

… the judgment has many victories hidden beneath the surface. Among these are the fact that the Court did not see an obstacle for primate rights in the fact that the continental European legal tradition has so far resisted conferring basic rights on beings who are not human (or are corporations). It therefore did not to take issue with the idea of extending the concept of fundamental rights-holdership beyond existing categories of rights-holders.

What is more, the Court accepted that nonhuman primates, in particular, can be holders of fundamental legal rights. It did not grapple, for example, with the question of whether nonhuman primates possess certain capacities, such as self-awareness, autonomy, or the capacity to bear duties. Finally, the Court endorsed the view that cantons are free to recognize animals as rights-holders even when the federal system does not.

Switzerland seems like an ideal place for progress in animal rights. The Swiss Constitution requires “account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms”. About ten years ago, the Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology opined that that “decapitation of wild flowers at the roadside without rational reason” is “morally impermissible” and that plants cannot be completely instrumentalised or owned.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.

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