On December 10th 1948, the United Nations General Assembly ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Declaration enshrined the principle that human beings could no longer be treated in law or public policy as mere tools of the powerful or subjects of the state, but that they possess inherent value, and must be permitted to live their lives according to the priorities they themselves identify, in so far as they do not infringe the rights of others. The ratification of the UDHR symbolised the triumph of humanitarianism in the aftermath of the most destructive war in human history, at the midpoint of what had already become the most destructive century in human history.
However partial and inadequate our implementation of the principles of human rights has been since 1948, the UDHR marked the beginning of a new era in human morality and rhetoric, in which compassion, justice and the rights of the individual finally came to assume precedence over the dictates of power.
As December 10th approaches, we salute the vision of those who framed the Declaration of Human Rights, and the efforts of all those who have sought to turn that ideal into reality. We acknowledge the responsibility upon us all to challenge and overcome the abuse of human rights throughout the world, but we also believe that the greatest tribute that can be paid to the idealism of 1948 is to acknowledge the limitations of our own ideals, and to seek to shape the morality of our own future in the same way as the framers of the Declaration of Human Rights in their time.
We believe that the future belongs neither to the entrenchment nor the consolidation of the ideals of 1948 but to their extension. Specifically, we believe that the time has come to recognise the moral imperative to include non-human animals within the sphere of protection that the Declaration establishes. The human race has long recognised that animals are not merely the instruments of our desires or will, and that the reality of their capacity to experience pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering, compels us to recognise that moral limits must apply to our treatment of non-human as surely as to human.
The ascription of moral and legal rights to animals, and their enshrinement in a United Nations Declaration of Animal Rights is the logical and inevitable progression of this principle. We introduce, therefore, the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights:
Inasmuch as there is ample evidence that many animal species are capable of feeling, we condemn totally the infliction of suffering upon our fellow creatures and the curtailment of their behavioural and other needs save where this is necessary for their own individual benefit.
We do not accept that a difference in species alone (any more than a difference in race) can justify wanton exploitation or oppression in the name of science or sport, or for use as food, for commercial profit or for other human ends.
We believe in the evolutionary and moral kinship of all animals and declare our belief that all sentient creatures have rights to life, liberty and natural enjoyment.
We therefore call for the protection of these rights.
The exploitation of animals by human beings is as deeply entrenched in human culture this century as the exploitation of our fellow human beings was in the last century. The progress in human rights that characterised the 20th and 21st century would have appeared no less radical to our ancestors than the abolition of animal exploitation appears now. All such exploitation predates any question of animal or even human rights, and it is our responsibility to seek moral guidance not in tradition or familiarity but in the enlightened principles of justice and compassion that have shaped the ideals of our own time. The assumption that animals cannot have rights because we have not yet given them rights belongs to the past. We must seek the truth with open minds, and in the full consciousness that the future has always belonged to those with the courage and vision to question the received wisdom of their day. Today, fifty-three years after the formal establishment of the rights of human beings, the time is right to bring this argument forward.
The differences between homo sapiens and other animals are legion, but evolution teaches us that we are, at a fundamental level, bound by profound similarities. Genetically almost indistinguishable from our closest primate relatives, human beings are not the pinnacle of evolution, but one tiny branch on its great tree.
The lesson of evolution is that we should expect commonalities between human and non-human in almost every respect.
Science, as much as experience, teaches us that it is no longer possible to assume that animals are mere machines, or bundles of instinct and reflex: they may flourish in freedom or languish under oppression just as we do. We may no longer seek refuge in ignorance.
Animals may not be able to express their interests in our language, or explicitly claim their rights from us, but the existence of their interests is beyond question. All animals seek to protect their own lives, preserve their freedom, seek what gives them pleasure and avoid what gives them displeasure or pain - in short to live their lives according to their own priorities. More than this, animals possess and express distinguishing characteristics as individuals. In all these respects, they are akin to human beings, however greatly the details of their lives may differ from ours. If animals suffer pain, and seek to protect their own lives, freedom and pleasures just as we do, on what basis can we continue to deny them the protection that rights grant to our lives, freedom and pleasures?
It is claimed that animals forfeit the privilege of rights because they lack our intelligence, our emotional bonds or our sense of morality, or because they cannot accept the responsibilities incumbent on the members of society. While few would deny that almost all humans possess these capabilities to a far greater extent than animals, why this should deny animals protection from exploitation or harm has never been established. Many human beings also lack these qualities: the very young or those suffering from mental impairments as a result of illness, congenital handicap or injury. We rightly recognise that these human beings deserve not less protection but more protection: not the denial of their rights, but the reinforcement of them. We owe a special responsibility to those who are unable to reap the advantages of full participation in human society, and who are unable to defend their own interests effectively. To apply opposite principles to human and non-human in this regard is to be guilty of unjustifiable discrimination.
Animals have been denied rights not because of any meaningful or relevant distinction between human and non-human, but for the same reason that human beings have been and continue to be denied rights: because ascribing them rights threatens the freedom of those in power. The rights of human beings have been won at the expense of the privileges of the rich and the powerful, and in the face of their resistance. The source of resistance to this emancipation of animals is not reason or justice, but a false notion of human self-interest.
Ultimately, the rights of animals threaten the freedom of some human beings to use them as they see fit, or to further their own particular ends. The arguments against the rights of animals withstand neither logical nor ethical scrutiny because they are the rearguard action of a defeated, specious philosophy.
The pretence that human affairs exist in isolation from those of all other living creatures on our planet is no longer sustainable. Evolution teaches us not arrogance but humility, and the greater follies of our technological century serve to reinforce the lesson that the natural world is neither our property or our servant. The further pretence that the exclusion of others from the benefits of compassion and justice can be justified by our status as the dominant species is untenable. Power is no longer the measure of moral worth. That is the lesson of our age.
Just as the framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights acted both in the long established philosophical traditions of the Enlightenment and in response to the horrific events of the first part of the twentieth century, so the framers of the Declaration on Animal Rights were motivated both by the humanist philosophical tradition and by the unprecedented nature and extent of animal exploitation at the end of the 20th Century.
Factory farming, the destruction of the natural environment and the introduction of novel scientific procedures such as cloning and xenotransplantation represent abuse of the lives and interests of animals unimaginable even half a century ago. The coexistence of the recognition of the principle of individual rights for human beings and of the institutionalised abuse and exploitation of individual animals on a global scale represents an ethical challenge that can no longer be ignored, and which, we believe, will determine the progress of morality and, inevitably, civilisation in the coming century.
The Declaration of the Rights of Animals is as much a statement of intent as it is of principle. We marked the fiftieth anniversary of the original Declaration by announcing our intention to achieve the aim of enshrining the rights of animals in the policy of the United Nations by the centenary of that date, the 10th December 2048. The challenge facing human society is to redefine our understanding of progress such that our recognition and protection of the rights of animals is as much a barometer of our level of civilisation as our recognition and protection of the rights of human beings. The evolution of human civilisation, its principles as well as its practice, will not end with the twentieth century: the citizens of the coming century, who are the children and young people of today, will not fail to grasp the opportunity to mark the moral progress of their time as we have defined ours. The future is theirs but it begins with us, today.