Commentary | Swiss reject animal lawyers

Referendum follows dead fish’s suit against fisherman

L ast month, Swiss lawyer Antoine Goetschel affirmed the importance of human rights while defending his client. “It’s about fairness and defending a minority,” he said. His client? A dead pike. A Swiss animal advocacy group felt that the fish had been subject to cruel treatment when a local fisherman took 10 minutes to reel it in before killing it.

Since the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into international law in 1948, this all-important tenet of “human rights” has been in a state of constant flux. Its plain meaning is crystal clear: absolutely all humans have the inalienable right to be recognized as humans. This maxim guarantees an array of fundamental rights and freedoms for all, regardless of who they are. Theoretically then, people are protected from state cruelty, religious intolerance, and many other atrocities. Today, these protections form much of the backbone of international law and – in many places – domestic law.

Unfortunately, this noble notion is often used and abused by individuals and groups attempting to promote a specific cause unrelated to human rights. Goetschel is one such user and abuser.

With his arguments, we enter the realm of the ridiculous. Goetschel, who spoke at McGill this Tuesday, is Switzerland’s – and the world’s – sole public animal rights lawyer. He was at the forefront of a heated public debate over a referendum this past week to appoint an animal rights lawyer in each of the 26 districts of Switzerland, funded by taxpayer money. The referendum failed, garnering less than 30 per cent of the vote.

Animal advocacy groups put the question to voters in response to perceived injustices to non-humans in Switzerland. Voters were not pleased – an attitude reflective of the absurd nature of this referendum in a country where popular support for animal protection is already quite high. Just look at the legislation already in place. Animals classified as social (including pigs, budgies, and even goldfish) are not allowed to be kept alone. People wishing to own pet dogs must undergo training courses. Farm animals are legally required to be exercised regularly.

So why, you might ask, should we begrudge these creatures the right to a lawyer? Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate animals. On the contrary, I am a devout vegetarian who can barely look at a piece of meat without cringing. I love my pet dog, and have verbally abused friends who see fit to ignore her. As much as I love animals, however, there is a certain line that our society cannot cross. We must show animal life respect, but not to the detriment of people. If you give animals the rights enjoyed by humans, then you strip “human rights” of their special meaning.

We need to consider some fundamental questions with far-reaching implications. Is there something exclusively human about our rights? Is there a line that separates human beings from animals? In allowing the campaign for animal protection to adopt the terminology of rights, we actually put our rights into question. Sure, it’s fine to say that animal protection laws must be enforced, but to use taxpayer funds to hire animal rights lawyers, even in a prosperous country like Switzerland, is madness. The 4.4 per cent of Swiss that are unemployed (as of 2009) need that money a whole lot more.

To be sure, animal welfare is important – we must act ethically toward animals. But Switzerland sent an important message by drawing the distinction between animal welfare and animal rights. A spectre has raised its cute, furry head, and we must put it down before it deprives us of our intrisic rights.

And in case you were worried, the Swiss fisherman was found not guilty. The pike was unavailable for comment.

Adam Winer is a U0 Arts Legacy student. Bark at him at