Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

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United Nations Declaration on Animal Welfare: Why not rights?

'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.

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