Switzerland: human rights for apes? – Politics

Almost 180,000 primates live in Basel. So: almost 179,000 humans and about 130 non-human primates. Of course, non-human primates, which include monkey species like macaques and lemurs, and great apes like gorillas and orangutans, don’t have nearly the same rights as human Baselians. But that could change next Sunday, when the city on the Rhine will vote on whether primates should have certain basic rights.

The authors want to add a passage to the canton’s constitution that grants non-human primates the right to life and physical and mental integrity. This would rule out animal experiments on primates, for example, but also the euthanasia of the animals. Depending on how you read it, a small animal rights revolution – or a catastrophe. After all, there are not only two animal parks in Basel that keep dozens of primates. But with Roche and Novartis also two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, which among other things develop medicines through research on animals.

The Swiss animal rights organization Sentience Politics came up with the template. The association is committed to “the interests of non-human animals” and justifies this in particular with their sentience. As early as 2016, members began collecting signatures for the primate initiative. Their argument: non-human primates are intelligent, empathetic and capable of suffering, i.e. so similar to us humans that they also need similar protection. The Swiss Animal Welfare Act, which applies nationwide, does not do justice to this because it focuses on the interests of people and not those of animals. In essence, it is about the question of whether, in the face of climate change and species extinction, animals should not be more than living objects in the legal sense.

The elephant that recognizes itself in the mirror

The question is not only being discussed in Switzerland. Other initiatives are also working to give animals rights that can be enforced in court. One example is the case of the elephant cow “Happy”, who has been living alone in a zoo in New York’s Bronx since 2006. Happy was the first elephant in the world to recognize itself in the mirror in an experiment – which researchers take as evidence of self-awareness. Until then, only primates and dolphins had succeeded. Now animal rights activists want to enforce in court that Happy can spend her old age with other elephants – that would meet the needs of her species much better. Has the lawsuit of the organization “Nonhuman Rights Project” Success, Happy could be the first elephant to be legally recognized as a person. The oral hearing is scheduled to take place this year. A similar project was already successful in Argentina in 2016: At that time, a court in Buenos Aires decided that the chimpanzee Cecilia should be released from decades of solitary confinement at the Mendoza Zoo. Today Cecilia lives on a reserve in Brazil.

However, such legal successes have so far been rare – in Germany, for example, classic animal protection has been anchored in the Basic Law since 2002, and Section 90a of the German Civil Code states: “Animals are not things.” Legally, however, they continue to be treated as objects. The most important German BGB commentary, the Grüneberg (until recently still known as “Palandt”), states in its most recent edition that § 90a is “a sentimental declamation without any real legal content”.

But the Swiss initiative is also ambitious compared to the cases of Happy or Cecilia: while elsewhere the focus is on creating precedents, there they are taking the constitutional route. If the primate initiative is successful on Sunday, cantonal politicians will have to draw up a corresponding law.

The idea almost failed even before the vote. The resistance to the spectacular template was great, even in Basel, which is more progressive. Not only representatives of pharmaceutical companies – who are not currently researching primates – reject the initiative as anti-research. The Zoological Garden is also against it, arguing that the initiative ultimately harms the animals because it is no longer specialists such as animal keepers or veterinarians who are responsible for their well-being, but lawyers.

Cantons are allowed to press ahead

The cantonal government and parliament tried to declare the initiative invalid. The federal government is responsible for animal welfare, she argues, and the cantons should not introduce any different legislation. However, both the Basel Constitutional Court and later the Federal Supreme Court saw things differently. “Cantons may, in principle, go beyond the protection guaranteed by the federal constitution,” the Federal Supreme Court held. In the past, it was indeed often individual cantons that pushed ahead with the introduction of new rights, such as women’s suffrage. However, according to the courts, if the initiative is accepted, the new rights would only apply to cantonal institutions, such as public hospitals or the university – none of which currently keep any primates. The less radical Animal Welfare Act would continue to apply to private companies such as the Basel Zoo or pharmaceutical companies.

Quite as spectacular as the initiative sounds, the whole thing should not end even if it is accepted. Nevertheless: Basel-Stadt would be the first place in the world where the population grants their non-human fellow primates basic rights. Of course, they could not sue for their rights alone. In Basel, people are therefore considering a representative at the veterinary office, an ombudswoman or an independent primate advisor.


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