Personhood for Animals: The Next Social Justice Movement

“A right is a legally enforceable claim - Personhood is often viewed as a precursor to rights, one need not be a person in order to have rights; one rather needs rights in order to be a person. Unfortunately, it is not at all clear which rights elevate one to personhood.”  - David N. Cassuto, a Pace University law professor who specializes in environmental and animal law.

Understanding animal rights to be an issue of both human and animal connections and interest, the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) on 12th May, 2018 organised their first “National Consultation on Rights and Personhood for Animals and its Linkages with Other Social Justice Movements” at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.

The consultation invited leaders from multiple social justice movements including the rights for dalits, adivasis, women, children, environment and the LGBT community. The collective participation of leaders of different social sectors led to both debate and insight into the issue of personhood for animals.

 Through this consultation, an open discussion on legal personhood of animals was initiated - seeking answers to questions - What the word “person” means in law? How is it related to rights? Why conferment of legal status of that of a “person” on animals is a much needed shift and what would be its advantages? Is personhood for animals necessary for ensuring that animals have legally protected rights?

Currently in law, animals are seen as property - no different than a table or a chair or a car. It gives no recognition to the animal’s inherent value and any animal protection offered in the legal system caters to human interest instead of the animals independent interests.

 The discussion deliberated on a broad range of issues, given the diverse background, skills, interests and perspectives of the participants. Some issues seemed to not have any resolution (What happens when the rights of animals are at loggerheads with the rights of human beings?) at the moment while there was a quick consensus on some (such as the right to live with dignity should be afforded to all).

It became clear during the discussion that dignity is the founding basis of privacy and all other fundamental rights for animals. Their interests deserve equal moral and legal consideration.

However, we stepped into murky waters when discussing the issue of animal rights versus livelihood. An inherent conflict of animal and human interests with respect to people’s rights to food and livelihood was apparent in certain cases. Working with these communities, which are dependent on animals to fulfil their basic necessities, to find alternatives to such animal use and then to empower them to switch to such alternatives would resolve a conflict of such interests. As rights are not absolute, in cases of conflicting rights between humans and animals, a balance of interests of both would have to be maintained. However, this is possible only when legal recognition is given to rights of animals so that their interests can be equally considered.

From a strategic point of view, it was argued that one must seek recognition of the legal personhood and fundamental rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity of specific animals – fundamental interests would be different for different species of animals and hence rights of all animals may not be the same as each species has different interests.

Hence, the importance of picking a specific species and within a specie, a specific individual emerged as a favourable step towards the goal. Such an approach also makes conflict situations more specific to resolve along with legal and ethical arguments. This was highlighted during the discussion on the status of elephants in our country and their abuse despite their heritage animal status. Given their ecological, historical and cultural importance, it was recognised that it would be most appropriate to take up the case of their personhood.

Another important points that came to light were the importance of scientific evidence to prove in court that elephants are sentient, autonomous and conscious beings unsuited to captivity.

While concluding there was consensus on the fact that any effort towards achieving rights; whether for humans or animals requires a multipronged approach which involves working with the government, community, public, media and as well as the legal system. It is also essential to engage with other movements and understand how different movements connect or conflict with each other.

As a first step towards the issue of personhood in the country - the meeting turned out to be a constructive one, where multiple organisations spanning, human interests, ecology, animal rights and law came together on a platform to discuss personhood as a strategy for helping evolve the status of animals.

Participating Organisations