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WAN’s Model Animal Welfare Law is something to aspire to
World Animal Net (WAN) is the world’s largest network of animal protection societies with over 3,000 affiliates in more than 100 countries and Consultative Status at the United Nations. WAN have just published a ‘Model Animal Welfare Act’ that has been designed to serve as a basic template and guidance document for anyone in the world interested in enacting new legislation or improving existing animal protection legislation in their countries.
Researched and written by Janice H. Cox and Dr Sabine Lennkh, it is based on an extensive comparative law exercise, taking into account ‘best practice’ in the field. The Model Act is a detailed document running to 142 pages, so in this article I want to highlight some of its very important and valuable ‘structural’ or overarching features that form the foundation for the effectiveness of specific laws. This is especially relevant because it’s this level of politics and law which has been neglected by the animal protection movement, a neglect that has, arguably, undermined animal welfare in practice.
One of the most important tasks of any such legislation is to define animal welfare, and the Act proposes the ‘five freedoms’ and the twelve criteria identified by the European Commission’s Welfare Quality Project as means of assessing animal welfare. But, of course, scientific assessment is only one aspect of the concept of ‘animal welfare’. The critical questions revolve around the ethical and political imperatives that flow from the issue. In other words, what are our society’s obligations (or indeed, animals’ entitlements) in terms of animal welfare standards?
Here, the Model Act develops the really interesting and useful idea of utilising the principles of the 3Rs that are supposed to apply to animal experimentation: Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. As the authors point out, these principles should apply to all harmful uses of animals. One of the strengths of this approach is that the 3Rs is already a universally-accepted principle in animal research regulation (rhetorically, at least). So why not apply this to, for example, animals harmed and killed for food? This approach, if implemented, embodies a practical approach to mitigating and abolishing animal harm. It’s a credible, plausible route to a radical improvement for animals.
Although it isn’t explicitly linked in the document, Section 42 of the Model Act which deals with Animal Welfare Measurement and Impact Assessment (p82) would contribute towards implementing a universal 3Rs approach to animal harm. However, as I’ve made clear previously, I think it would need to be complemented by additional laws that would impose a duty on the government to develop and meet progressive animal welfare targets. These types of legal instruments provide government departments and agencies with clear objectives and priorities in other areas such as climate change, air pollution, child poverty and fiscal policy.
But, as I allude to above, in practice the 3Rs has been more an exercise in false public reassurance than an actual constraint on animal research, and this points to how political power has been abused by animal harm interests to resist animal welfare. Therefore, the proposal that countries should commit to prioritise animal welfare as a significant state objective through their constitutions represents a robust means of preventing powerful animal harm industries from running amok. This is consistent with the key findings of my own research: that the absence of such overarching political safeguards explains why animal welfare counts for virtually nothing in UK public policy.
The Model Act also comes up with very valuable proposals in its section on ‘Policy’, starting with the need for a national policy or strategy to improve animal welfare. Such a strategic policy would include: future plans for animal welfare law, government structures and enforcement systems; increasing knowledge and skills; expanding research and development; supporting education and awareness; and mainstreaming animal welfare, monitoring and evaluation across government. Once again, these vital measures are conspicuous by their absence in the UK, explaining why the animal protection movement has been unable to gain meaningful traction with the UK government.
Which part of government is responsible for animal welfare policy is another fundamental issue. The Model Act notes that policy failures that can occur when animal welfare is the responsibility of agriculture ministries whose goals tend to reflect the commercial interests of the animal farming industry, for example, Defra in the UK. To avoid this damaging conflict of interest, the Model Act suggests locating the animal welfare remit within a ‘sympathetic ministry’, though there might be a challenge finding such a body in some countries, such as Britain. It is important to bear in mind one of the lessons of my research, that even ministries that start off neutral can be captured by powerful vested interests, as happened with the Home Office’s administration of animal experimentation licensing.
While it is suggested that a new, separate animal welfare ministry might be relatively weak compared with other ministries, I believe this could be overcome if such a Ministry was sufficiently empowered and resourced in terms of finances and scientific/veterinary expertise. Part of such empowerment would be the powers to ensure that other ministries that affected animals all gave serious consideration to their animal welfare impacts. This reflects the absolutely vital need for ‘uniform ethical principles underlying animal welfare policy and law’ – so an animal would receive the same high level of protection regardless of where they lived in the country or how they might be used. In other words, the main consideration would be the wellbeing of the individual animal rather what humans can gain from exploiting them.
The Model Act’s discussion of ‘Involved Parties’ (pp32-3) addresses the fundamental issue of the composition and openness of animal welfare policy-making. This really is a vital area – a policy process dominated by animal research interests to the exclusion of animal welfare advocates will result in weak regulation and excessive levels of animal harm. The Model Act’s proposals reflect some of the principles of ‘deliberative democracy’, an area where our Centre has been funding research. So, it emphasises the need to involve all stakeholders and suggests that:
‘… consultations should include face-to-face meetings… as this provides stakeholders with the opportunity to interact and gain an understanding of the (often competing) needs and interests of other groups of stakeholders.’
The question of public involvement is another essential issue and this is one area where the Model Act overlooks a vital consideration. So, while it is true that ‘The public should be involved in any legislative consultations, as the Act confers certain obligations upon them (including a “duty of care”) ’, there is actually a deeper reason – in a democracy, the government, ultimately, is acting on behalf of the public. Therefore the public should have the opportunity to participate in all areas of policy-making. This is one area where the Model Act could be usefully augmented with analysis from political studies regarding democratic imperatives and the role of deliberation, though such measures may have more relevance in polities that already use such techniques or have more established democratic cultures.
In conclusion, WAN’s Model Act is a major contribution to the advance of animal protection, not only by providing a practical template for new legislation in countries with relatively little experience in the field, but also by highlighting the fundamental weaknesses in countries, like the UK, that purport to have high standards.