An Indian court recently ruled that animals should enjoy the same rights as human beings, saying “they have distinct personas with corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”.
In a landmark ruling, the Uttarakhand High Court reportedly accorded the status of “legal person or entity” to animals in the northern state.
Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh bestowed the status on “the entire animal kingdom” while ruling on a set of guidelines to prevent cruelty against animals. Judges Sharma and Singh cited a lot of literature to back their argument including the Hindu text, the Isha Upanishad, which they said dwell on the principle of equality of all species, as well as a Supreme Court judgment, which had held that an animal, too, has honour and dignity which it cannot be arbitrarily deprived of and its rights and privacy have to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks.
The judgment, which would need to be ratified by the national Supreme Court, is meant to act as a deterrent to poachers, companies that pollute the natural environment and those who abuse pets or wildlife. The state made a similar environmental ruling about the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers last year to fight toxic waste being dumped into them, which was later stayed by the Supreme Court.
“The entire animal kingdom, including avian and aquatic ones, are declared as legal entities”, said the Uttarakhand court. The court also declared all Uttarakhand residents the guardians of animals, and held them responsible to ensure their welfare and protection. “All the citizens throughout the state are hereby declared persons in loco parentis as the human face for the welfare/protection of animals”, it added.
Under Indian law, there are two types of legal “persons” — sentient human beings and “juristic persons” — such as minors, companies, trusts, wards of court, or people with mental incapacities. The ruling would put animals with the latter category.
Did you notice that it’s only people who are legally recognised as “sentient”?
The move by Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh has been described as “the good evolution of law” according to a number of animal rights experts and lawyers.
In theory law’s words have power however as English animal law expert Mike Radford points out, “if legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced”. He goes on to illustrate that “it is self-evidently desirable that legislation is understood by those it is addressed and those who have the duty to enforce it”.
With that in mind, have a look at the word “rights”. In the book “Animals, Welfare and Law” Barrister Ian Robertson sets out how the words “rights”, “welfare”, “protection” and “interests” are words commonly used in the language of animal law, but frequently confused. Brooman et al (“Law Relating to Animals”) similarly describe “rights” as a term that has been hijacked from the field of human justice, where the application of the word remains highly debated to the point that questions remain whether “rights” exist at all.
So the question is whether or not the move in India will translate to practical positive changes for animals in their daily lives. It’s progress though, isn’t it?