The University of Melbourne recently launched a new research initiative: the Human Rights and Animal Ethics (HRAE) Research Network, under the Directorship of Professor Barbara Creed. Researchers Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan and Clare McCausland explain the link between human rights, animal rights, civil disobedience and social change.
On an otherwise unremarkable day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat on a public bus. Parks purposely broke the law. As a black woman living in Alabama, she was required to make her seat available to a white commuter. Parks is not remembered as a criminal. Rather, to most, her actions are viewed as an important act of civil disobedience and a milestone in the American civil rights movement.
Acts of civil disobedience are by definition illegal. But they serve an important social purpose » they spark discussion, can result in policy change, and generally help progress society.
Civil disobedience is distinguishable from other types of illegal behaviour because it is conscientious, public and done with the intention of changing the law. People who commit acts of civil disobedience are expected to meet certain standards. They must not be violent and must appeal to the public’s shared sense of morality. Only when an illegal activity meets these standards can it be defended morally and socially.
The history of human rights has been punctuated by these remarkable acts. Early supporters of women’s suffrage paved the way for groups like the Occupy Wall Street movement, who voiced their protest against growing financial inequality. More recently, we have seen a resurgence of disobedient activity on behalf of animals.
In March, animal activists in New South Wales once again captured images of abattoir workers treating animals in ways that are both cruel and broadly socially unacceptable. In this particular case it was punching, stamping, kicking and decapitating turkeys.
Since the footage aired the workers responsible have been sacked and the community has once again debated the merits of mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses. This reasonable public policy debate, coupled with appropriate disciplinary action, seems like an eminently appropriate outcome.
Yet some Australian farming groups have responded by calling for stiffer penalties for those who capture such images. Agricultural interests in the US have taken an even more extreme position. Animal activists have been labeled «terrorists» and the so-called «ag gag» laws seek remarkably harsh penalties for those who capture and release images of cruelty to animals.
In our view, the action of those who of obtained the New South Wales turkey images squarely meets the criteria for defensible civil disobedience. It was not violent; the images were publicised directly after the event; and it was done for the express purpose of influencing public policy.
Not only have illegally obtained images resulted in changes to how animals are treated in individual farms, it has been crucial in fostering broader public discussions about how all agricultural animals are treated. If people don’t have information coming from all sides of the story » both from farmers as well as from those who speak on behalf of animals » they cannot decide for themselves which laws they should support. And in the absence of an informed public, policy-makers cannot draft legislation that accurately reflects society’s views.
Those who break the law to expose animal suffering know that their actions are illegal. And they are often arrested or fined as a result. But they also serve a social purpose, which is to allow the rest of us an insight into how animals are treated in otherwise invisible settings.
They allow the community to be part of the policy debate and may well be remembered in future for their contribution to the greater good, not the illegality of their actions.
Civil disobedience has progressed our thinking on human rights. It is no less essential to how we think about animals.