Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

United Nations Declaration on Animal Welfare: Why not rights?

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'Advocacy for animals: Highway to Hell', Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2013

‘Advocacy for animals: Highway to Hell’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2013


By Clare McCausland

University of Melbourne

For the past 13 years the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has been lobbying for a UN Declaration on Animal Welfare (UDAW). To date they have not been successful in achieving this aim. While they cite the in-principle support of more than 44 nations and boast an online petition with more than two million signatures, Geneva has so far been silent on the proposal. Should the animal protection community be dismayed or should it take a different tack?

Here I want to suggest that the UDAW as it currently stands could work just as well as a Declaration of the (Welfare) Rights of Animals. I will focus primarily on the reasons why this is a theoretically coherent option. Towards the end I’ll suggest briefly why I think a rights declaration would be a preferable document, even if the question may now be moot for political reasons.

In 2000 the Secretary of WSPA was Australia’s own RSPCA chief, Dr Hugh Wirth, who in 2004 became the organisation’s President.  Like many others, Wirth distinguishes between two kinds of animal protection: animal rights and animal welfare. In 2004 in an edition of the RSPCA News he wrote:

The general media, and thus a great number of people in the community, believe that animal welfare and animal rights are synonymous terms and are therefore interchangeable. This view is simply wrong. The RSPCA is part of the worldwide animal welfare movement which believes that humans may make use of animals for companionship, work, pleasure and food and fibre production, provided all animals are always treated with respect, not subjected to cruelty and their welfare is fully protected.

The animal rights movement does not accept that humans may use animals for any purpose, as to do so would be, in its view, unethical exploitation of animals by humans. Often the expressed policies of each movement sound synonymous, but in truth the desired outcomes are very different. The animal rights movement will only be satisfied with a world where all humans are vegans and thus do not use animals for any purpose.

This is an accurate, if limited description of the current animal protection movement. It is worth noting that many organisations (including Animals Australia) lobby for an end to animal exploitation, while endorsing many of the welfare reform measures supported by the RSPCA. Groups like Animals Australia assiduously avoid use of the term ‘animal rights’ when describing their own mission, likely to avoid conflation with more militant animal protection groups who flatly reject the legitimacy of welfare reform as a useful means of bringing about an end to animal exploitation.

But is the animal rights / animal welfare distinction a useful one?

In his careful investigation of the foundation of human rights, philosopher James Griffin has noted that it would be possible to carry on with human rights without any reference to the word ‘rights’ at all [1]. Rather, we can look for structural evidence that certain protections are functioning as rights.

The text of the UDAW is an excellent example of a document endorsing principles that look and function much like rights, while stopping short of advocating for ‘animal rights’. In its support for the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare we find a system of welfare protections that behaves in just the same way as would a system of animal welfare rights.

We do this is by seeking evidence that these protections imply positive obligations on the part of others. While the UDAW speaks of the five freedoms as a useful guide for those who work with animals, it is possible to infer a belief that they also provide a source of obligation for others. Certainly other references to the five freedoms make this explicit. In New Zealand and in Costa Rica, for example, they are obligatory under law. The RSPCA (Victoria) vision also articulates its animal welfare principles in terms of the five freedoms, and notes as one of its strategic directions the intention to ‘to broaden and strengthen [their] legislative basis for action’ – a process which would establish firmer legal obligations on the part of those who interact with animals, on the basis of which they must be afforded the five freedoms.

The other way in which we can infer a deontological structure is by considering the Five Freedoms as side constraints on our behaviour, in the language of Robert Nozick, or to adopt Ronald Dworkin’s metaphor, as moral trumps.  Side constraints and trumps are very similar and they each support the notion that there are some interests which must be protected no matter the amount of good for ourselves or for others which we could attain by violating them. If the Five Freedoms are taken seriously, an animal’s freedom to exercise natural behaviour will trump a farm owner’s interest in maximising the farm’s efficiency, or profits, even when it would be cheaper to keep the animals closely confined.

Some people will certainly argue that insofar as the proposed declaration does not oppose animal use or exploitation, it cannot achieve any rights for animals. The possession of any rights, it is argued, is incompatible with an endorsement of exploitation or with property status. The UDAW does not oppose animal use or ownership, and furthermore, makes explicit reference to the benefits use and ownership afford to humans.

But it isn’t obvious that being owned precludes the possibility of holding rights altogether. Ownership does not mean that the owner can do as they please with their property; owners are still subject to duties. Consider, for example, the myriad restrictions that come with owning a heritage-listed house. And owners of animals have some obligations towards them under anti-cruelty laws, even when they are not articulated individually. Whether or not an individual ought to have a right not to be used in a particular manner or for particular ends will depend on whether they have an intrinsic interest in freedom from use, and an argument needs to be made that animals have that interest. If it happens that they do not, this does not mean that their other interests can’t be protected by rights.

It is true that referring to the five freedoms as a guide, rather than as a source of obligation, casts some doubt on any interpretation of them functioning as rights. And certainly activists who lobby for the abolition of animal exploitation are unlikely to support the UDAW no matter its choice of language.

But there is no reason that the WSPA could not endorse a system of welfare rights for animals with an aspirational role similar to that played by international human rights instruments, including other sets of rights tailored to the interests and capacities of those who hold them (such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child). By appropriating the language of rights to convey the same goals, a “Declaration of the Rights of Animals” would have the ability to recognise the important, if distinct, interests of animals in the same way we consider comparable human interests. Not to do so only because the rights holders belong to different species is unjustified discrimination – in this case speciesism – and contrary to the principle of equality which underpins the allocation of rights generally, as well as the spirit in which such declarations are made.

With its large levels of international recognition and support it is probably not sensible for the WSPA to change its approach to UDAW now. But it might be worth reflecting on the lost opportunity to develop a more powerful, and egalitarian document.



[1] 2008. On Human Rights, New York: Oxford University Press, 18.








One thought on “United Nations Declaration on Animal Welfare: Why not rights?

  1. What about an animal’s freedom not to be killed? Surely the interest and right to continue to live is the most basic one which underpins all others and without which the “5 freedoms” amount to something less than rights.

    I think it remiss of the author not to mention once the killing and the death of the animal – a large part of our use of them on the farm and in the factory .

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