Editor’s note: For years, the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs has brought together diplomats, journalists and academic experts to discuss key international issues. This year’s edition — Power and Empowerment — is planned as an in-person and live-stream “hybrid” event. It will be held from Feb. 21 though Feb. 24. It is free, but space is limited, and sign-up is required at worldaffairsconference.org. This column was written by a conference participant.
The defining question of our time is simple. Will the world in which we live today be habitable tomorrow? Taking up this question at the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, one panel will observe that the only way to ensure our survival as a species is by safeguarding the interests of animals with whom we share this world.
This recognition is far from new. Half a century ago, world leaders convened in Stockholm for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The title given to the 1972 conference was telling. The first proclamation in its report observed how we as humans had transformed the environment — both its natural and artificial aspects — on an unprecedented scale. In polluting the water, air, earth and life-sustaining systems, we’d created ecological imbalances, among other harms. By referring to it as the human environment, the implication was that there was no longer a world untouched by human activity, no part of it for which we were not responsible.
Given the vital role animals play in sustaining life, world leaders have since negotiated treaties to conserve them. Take, for example, the 1973 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates under what conditions endangered species can be traded across borders. There is also the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, which identifies wildlife as “an irreplaceable part of the Earth’s natural system which must be conserved for the good of mankind.” This sentiment is echoed in the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which articulates conservation’s role in maintaining the “life sustaining systems of the biosphere.”
Underscoring the precarious state of the biosphere today, a giant Jenga tower was erected at the most recent Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The question posed to leaders by the leaning tower was evident: How many more blocks would they allow to be pulled out before the system simply toppled?
Yet the need to keep these blocks in place — to conserve animals at the species level — is only half the puzzle. Indeed, it makes little difference if leaders agree not to pull the blocks out if the blocks themselves are crumbling. Put differently, we have no hope of securing the life systems that animals collectively support if we neglect to safeguard their interests as individuals.
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As one of several topics to be discussed during the Animal Rights and Human Benefits panel at the St. Petersburg Conference, a newly proposed treaty drafted by the International Coalition for Animal Protection seeks to address this issue. Called the Convention on Animal Protection for Public Health, Animal Well-Being, and the Environment (CAP), the treaty’s fundamental principles underscore the well-being of individual animals as integral to human health, environmental protection, and conservation. In a critical distinction from existing treaties, it holds that animals, as sentient beings, have intrinsic value, which affords them the right to be free from cruelty and unnecessary suffering and in turn obligates humans to act responsibly toward them.
The Convention on Animal Protection would secure these obligations through a framework of modest yet meaningful protections, which parties would be expected to fulfill to the best of their abilities. Under the umbrella treaty, all animals would be afforded protections from cruel acts and conditions, with parties required to identify activities that adversely affect their interests and take steps to ameliorate those harms.
Animals under human control would see their well-being secured through provisions requiring suitable food and water, adequate shelter, veterinary care and opportunities for socialization, exercise and to engage in natural behaviors. For wild animals, state parties would be required to establish protected areas, prioritize nonlethal management methods and those that result in the least amount of suffering and monitor the effects of climate change and other anthropogenic stressors on their habitat.
The Convention on Animal Protection contemplates the raising of this global floor for animal protections through subsequent conferences of the parties and development of protocols, or sub-agreements among states, to secure protections, such as bans on whaling, cosmetics tested on animals or displays of captive wildlife — many of which have already been embraced by countries around the world.
Indeed, if we are to overcome the crises we face today, including climate change, biodiversity loss and zoonotic disease outbreaks, we must come together now as we did a half-century ago to advance the interests of individual animals as if they were our own as humans — because they are.
Rajesh K. Reddy directs the Animal Law Program at the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, where he teaches International Animal Law, Animal Legal Philosophy, and Emerging Topics in Animal Law, as well as oversees its advanced animal law degree programs for both lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Outside of Lewis & Clark, he chairs the International Animal Law Subcommittee of the Animal Law Section of the American Bar Association and serves on the boards of Minding Animals International and the International Coalition for Animal Protection (ICAP).