From privileges for a few to rights for all
There was a time, not so long ago, when the so-called ‘civilised’ world was divided into free humans and slaves. Free humans were those who had the right to own property while the slaves were those who were considered as property. Free humans had the privilege to make decisions not only for themselves but also for their slaves.
As we learnt from others who we thought were less civilised than us (adivasis and tribals who live in forests across the globe) and improved our morals, our societies came to accept the fact that all humans are born equal. Each human in the ‘civilised’ world got what we call human rights by virtue of being human. It didn’t matter whether you were black, white or coloured, woman or man, untouchable or Brahmin. You were recognised as a person with some inalienable rights. This was a big step for our societies which had groaned under the weight of artificially constructed hierarchies for so long. After what seemed like an eternity, all hierarchy among ‘civilised’ human beings was rejected in favour of legal equality of all.
Now, we are at a stage in our society’s moral development where rights are being extended beyond human beings. Today, several countries including Bolivia, New Zealand, Colombia and Bangladesh recognise the rights of nature. ‘Rights of nature’ are laws that establish an ecosystem's legal right to exist and regenerate. Ecuador was the first country to grant legal rights to nature in 2008, and now it has become the first country to recognise the rights of individual groups of animals as well.
How did this happen?
It all started with a monkey. A woolly monkey named Estrellita, to be specific. She was taken from the wild when she was one month old and kept as a pet by Ana Beatriz Burbano Proaño for 18 years. Possessing a wild animal is illegal under Ecuadorian law, so the authorities seized Estrellita in 2019 and put her in a zoo. Ana was shaken up by this separation from an animal whom she thought of as a family member. So, she filed a habeas corpus petition, which is a legal mechanism to determine if the detention of an individual is valid. In the petition, Ana asked that Estrellita be returned to her and later requested that the court declare that Estrellita’s rights had been violated. Sadly, Estrellita passed away one month after being relocated to the zoo. Nevertheless, the case was heard by the Constitutional Court of Ecuador.
In the judgment released in January this year, the court ruled that Ecuador’s rights of nature laws apply to wild animals like Estrellita. Wild animals, the court said, generally have the right “not to be hunted, fished, captured, collected, extracted, kept, retained, trafficked, marketed or exchanged”. Further, they also have the right to the “free development of their animal behavior, which includes the guarantee of not being domesticated and not forced to assimilate human characteristics or appearances”.
Those rights emanate from animals’ innate and individual value, and not because they are useful to human beings, the court said. That distinction is important because courts typically have interpreted rights of nature laws as applying to entire ecosystems, made up of many animals and inanimate aspects of the biosphere like rivers and forests. Animal law, on the other hand, has mainly been concerned with the inhumane treatment of individual animals. This new judgment gives animals rights over and above traditional animal law by treating animals as essential parts of nature and thus essential for survival of ecosystems.
“What makes this decision so important is that now the rights of nature can be used to benefit small groups or individual animals,” Kristen A Stilt, a Harvard law professor and faculty director of the school’s Brooks McCormick Jr Animal Law and Policy Program, says. “That makes rights of nature a far more powerful tool than perhaps we have seen before.”
The court also found that Estrellita’s rights had first been violated by Ana who domesticated a wild animal, and then by the government which took that animal away against its best interests. The court said that the government must develop new rules and procedures to ensure the constitutional rights of wild animals are respected.
Understanding some complexities of the case
Interesting as this case might be, the case for legal rights for animals does give rise to a few questions and complexities. For one, does such a ruling apply to wild as well as domesticated animals (some of which, such as chickens, are bred on an industrial scale for human consumption)? Will such a law turn into a tool for promoting vegetarianism, and infringe on humans’ right to consume what they want?
There are communities and tribes across the world – including in India – that hunt and eat wild animals. Will the law be used for banning hunting and fishing, a move that might sound the death-knell for such communities?
Ecuador’s initiative is admirable and cannot (and should not) be belittled. Laws are powerful tools, and have a huge potential to right any wrongs that are committed and drive change. But even as they do so, isn’t a closer look merited at all the possible impacts that they might trigger?