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Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70 (part 3): citizenship rights for animals?

Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka – who have written extensively on animal rights, for example in Zoopolis – note in their chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Citizenship that citizenship has a ‘long history of internal exclusions by which women, racialized castes, property-less workers, [indigenous communities] and others were deemed unable and unworthy of being equal participants in political decision-making’. Something similar may currently be said of children and people with cognitive disabilities, as they ‘are still relegated, both de facto and de jure, to the status of passive subjects, not active citizens’.

The chapter by Donaldson and Kymlicka, however, focuses on yet another ‘striking case of internal exclusion’, namely that of domesticated animals. They take issue with what is called the ‘capacity contract’, which runs deep in the Western tradition and by which some members of society are deemed to be naturally governed by others. In other words, a society divided into first-class participating citizens and passive (and oppressed) second-class wards, the latter obviously being ‘limited in their ability to self-organize and to fight for political power’.

Criticism of the capacity contract is often countered with the argument that the wards enjoy passive representation through their guardians or trustees. However, the authors’ example that the five major illnesses affecting children in industrialised societies are all environmentally related shows that the adults’ interests in wealth creation and the convenience of car culture have prevailed. On a side note, it is not surprising given the ongoing failures of the passive representation system that underage children are now taking the initiative in asking for real climate change prevention measures.

The authors therefore suggest to instead adopt a membership model under which citizenship is tied ‘to being a member of society, a stakeholder, or a subject of the law’. While traditional commentators feel there is no alternative to the status of passive wards of children, the mentally disabled and animals given their lack of linguistic agency to participate politically, Donaldson and Kymlicka rightly point out that these groups are communicative about, for example, the sorts of activities and relationships they want to engage in. Given their capacity for communication, reasoning, understanding, empathy, responsibility and self-restraint, the current language-centred status quo is said to be theoretically arbitrary and democratically unjustified:

So long as individuals can assert their political claims as linguistic agents, we accept a strong duty to remove potential barriers to their equal and effective participation. But is someone falls below the threshold of linguistic agency, we renounce any obligation to solicit their input or to facilitate their participation, and indeed in many cases legally prohibit their participation, and consign them to the status of passive wardship.

A paper by Anne Peters, part of a symposium on the future of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the occasion of its 70th anniversary, complements the chapter by Donaldson and Kymlicka by arguing for the recognition under international law of the personhood of nonhumans. She submits that as long as animals only benefit from protective rules, their welfare is but one interest among others. By contrast, animal rights ‘would allow a fair balancing in which the proper value of fundamental animal interests … could be integrated’.

While Peters’s argument may still seem utopian to some, the interests of animals and the environment are now represented in the parliaments of different countries, for example in the Netherlands through the Party for the Animals. Those who frown upon this trend might be convinced by research referred to by Peters which suggests that the belief in a rigid human/animal divide seems to condone the dehumanization of humans. Not for nothing, a Universal Declaration on Animal Rights which was drafted by an NGO coalition in 1978 on the occasion of the UDHR’s 50th anniversary stated in its preamble that ‘the respect of humans for animals is inseparable from the respect of man for another man’.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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