Human Rights are something that we know we are entitled to. As humans we are considered to have legal rights on many issues, and these would be protected by a Judge in court.
We know that this has not always been the case. Throughout history some groups had to fight for their right to be seen as ‘legal persons‘. The very fact that someone was human, did not give them entitlement to the human rights that are taken for granted by so many.
Slaves were not considered legal persons for a great number of years. Rather they were considered to be legal things, which could be owned and treated in any way that the ‘owner’ saw fit. Women and children have also been treated as ‘legal things’ in our history and it took a great deal of effort to put these terrible injustices right. And so today, there are no ‘human things’, rather all humans are considered ‘legal persons’ in the eyes of the law.
It gets a little bit murky when we add in the fact that not all legal persons are human, in fact, some legal persons are not even living. Steven Wise explains in the video below how judges have bestowed the status of ‘legal person’ on some very ‘un-human’ things including corporations, mosques, various holy books and statues and even a river in New Zealand.
Now, as Steve discusses so eloquently, the question turns to conscious, nonhuman animals.
‘If you have the cognitive capacity to live life as you choose, you should be able to do that. Your species is completely irrelevant.’
He gives an interesting example comparing legal things to legal persons below:
“The example I give is that I can take a baseball bat, and smash the window of your car, and I’ll be charged with something. But the car or the windshield doesn’t have legal rights. It’s not a person. Essentially, a non-human animal is a kind of animate windshield. If I’m cruel to her, I can go to jail, but the non-human animal is a complete bystander to this. She doesn’t have any rights.”
As explained in the quote above, yes, there are ‘animal rights‘ in place, and these are recognised by the law. But, animals are still considered to be ‘legal things’ in the same way as a car or other possession. This includes animals which we know to be intelligent, conscious, social and with the ability to communicate.
Currently the law does not see any fault with locking great apes in isolation for the duration of their lives, something that we only inflict on our worse human criminals.
The law does not protect intelligent dolphins from being taken from the pod and kept in captivity where they often suffer with depression.
It is not illegal to keep a chimpanzee in a cage, until it is needed for scientific research.
None of these things are considered unacceptable in the eyes of the law, because the creatures in question have been identified as ‘legal things’.
Steven Wise is hoping to change all of this, and has spent thirty years preparing to take his case to court – to fight for the rights of chimpanzees (initially) to be recognised as ‘legal persons’.
Steven Wise is leading the NonHuman Rights Project which intends to give a voice to the nonhuman animals that he considers to be autonomous beings, similar enough to humans to be entitled freedom, and protection from imprisonment. This includes great apes, dolphins and elephants. At this stage he is fighting in court for the release of a number of chimpanzees which are detained in various New York locations.
The Nonhuman Rights Project is the only organization working through the common law to achieve actual LEGAL rights for members of species other than our own.
Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere “things,” which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to “persons,” who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them.
Wise is bringing his cases to court by writ of habeas corpus, which is defined below by the Lectic Law Library.
A writ of habeas corpus is a judicial mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not that person is imprisoned lawfully and whether or not he should be released from custody. A habeas corpus petition is a petition filed with a court by a person who objects to his own or another’s detention or imprisonment.
Wise’s intention is to open the door to allowing these self aware creatures to be considered legal persons, in the same way that attorneys fought for the rights of human slaves in the past. In 1771, one such case which paved the way for future slaves was Somerset v Stewart, which is discussed in the TEDtalk above. Lord Mansfield, the judge in question granted Somerset, a slave since the age of 8 years old, the status of a legal person, and he became a free man as of that moment.
Wise believes that humans are not the only species that should be afforded this same freedom, and that is the crux of his argument.
“They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past and plan ahead for the future, which is one of the reasons imprisoning a chimp is at least as bad and maybe worse than imprisoning a person.”
Unsurprisingly he has come up against criticism, and his case has been rejected repeatedly in court.
Christopher Coulston, an assistant state attorney general representing the defines argues that chimpanzees should not be afforded the same rights as humans as they are unable to contribute to society in the way that humans do.
“They can’t bear the moral responsibility in our society, and the correlative rights and duties do not make sense to chimps. They are just not equipped the same way as human beings to be members of society.”
He also expressed concern that others would be encouraged to fight for the rights of other animals to be recognised as legal persons, which he likened to ‘opening the floodgates’. The potential for people to want livestock and domestic animals to receive the same level of rights could be tricky indeed.
As it stands the case is still ongoing, with hearings still to take place. Wise remains confident that the chimpanzees that he is representing will be released from their unlawful detention.
The project can only take as many cases to court as it can afford, and therefore reaches out to the public on it’s site – with which we have no affiliation. If you are interested in supporting the cause you can find out more by following this link.
Should chimpanzees and other animals, which can be considered autonomous beings, be given the right to be considered legal persons rather than legal things?
Do you think this is going a step too far, and that of course humans should be separate to animals in the eyes of the law?
Or do you consider the imprisonment of conscious animals to be an unfair practice that should be stopped?
We would love to hear from you.
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