The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the United Nations, sets forth a number of rights that are meant to be guaranteed to all people.
It includes (among many others):
And while there are violations of these rights, there's also an effort to provide legal recourse because we have outlined and documented them as possessed by all.
Now what if animals had their own set of universal and legally protected rights to safeguard them from human exploitation?
A judge in Argentina may have got the ball rolling with a recent landmark case.
The case, filed by the Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) and the Great Ape Project, argued that the confinement of Cecilia, a chimpanzee living alone in a concrete zoo habitat, was ‘unlawful’ and damaging to her health.
The historic ruling by Judge María Alejandra Mauricio declared that Cecilia is a being (not a thing) and is thereby "subject to nonhuman rights."
Not only will Cecilia be released from the zoo and sent to live with other chimps at a sanctuary (pictured below) but Judge Mauricio also requested that zoo officials improve conditions for the animals who will remain there after Cecilia departs.
One argument submitted to Judge Mauricio to assist her decision stated:
"This is[not a question of granting rights possessed by human beings but to accept and understand once and that these entities are sentient beings.]" (translated)
This belief was reflected in a Los Andes newspaper interview, where Judge Mauricio was quoted as saying, "We’re not talking about civil rights enshrined in the Civil Code. We’re talking about species’ own rights: development and life in their natural habitat."
The hope is that the ruling will eventually extend to all captive animals but it's not the first time courts have debated this question.
An orangutan named Sandra was once released from Buenos Aires Zoo due to the argument that her mental abilities classified her as a 'non-human person' and because of her cognitive development, the court agreed that confinement deprived her of her liberty.
And in his essay All Animals Are Equal, philosopher Peter Singer pointed out that human infants and those with brain damage have rights, yet animals who may have the same or even a higher degree of intelligence and awareness, have none.
Still, legal arguments over which animals should be defined as 'non-human persons' and endowed with rights have prevailed. Squabbles about which species suffer the most in captivity and which should be protected have muddied the legal definition of 'non-human persons'.
But how do we determine which species deserve to suffer or which are conscious of their suffering and in turn need protection?
Maybe a better question is the one posed by the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham:
"…the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?"
In closing her verdict, Mauricio quoted the words of philosopher Immanuel Kant:
"We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals."
Maybe by universally recognizing animals as living and thinking beings who deserve protection from the exploitation and cruelty of humans, our judgement, and our hearts, can be softened.