Landmark decision

Justice Minallah’s consideration of animal rights is the only fitting judicial response to the crises faced by animals

Kamal Siddiqi June 08, 2020

Owing to the focus on the Covid-19 pandemic, a decision in May by the Honourable Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) did not get the attention it deserved. Many around the world did notice and appreciated the ruling. Some have said that it will help in the fight for animal rights in years to come.

In the words of the Non-Human Rights Project, which works to secure fundamental rights for non-human animals, the decision was a tremendous sign of progress in the global fight for animal rights.

“Justice Minallah’s careful consideration of non-human animal rights alongside human rights and environmental protection is the only fitting judicial response to the existential crises faced by animals all over the world,” NhRP’s executive director Kevin Schneider said, adding, “We look forward to bringing this decision to the attention of the New York and Connecticut courts as we urge them to recognise our elephant clients’ Happy and Minnie’s right to liberty.”

In the IHC decision, Justice Minallah had referred to Happy as an “inmate” at the Bronx Zoo and observed that “zoos do not serve any purpose except to display their living inmates as exhibits to visitors.”

Justice Minallah starts his 67-page decision with a saying from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”

For a lay person like myself, the decision is easy to read and appreciate. The situation arising out of the Covid-19, it observes, “is an opportunity for humans to introspect and relate to the pain and distress suffered by other living beings when they are subjugated and kept in captivity and denied the conditions and habitats created for their survival by the Creator.”

The IHC judgment goes on to ask whether animals i.e. non-human living creatures have independent rights and, if there is a duty on the part of the human race through the state and its public functionaries to protect, preserve and conserve such species.

In a mention to the plight of the elephant Kavaan, the court observes that Asiatic elephants have the attributes of a nomadic living being. They need to be constantly on the move and can cover more than 10 kilometres a day. By nature, they need a social structure to thrive and they exist in matriarchal herds.

“By now there is consensus that an elephant has emotions, and some are similar to those of a human. There also appears to be compelling evidence that zoo is not an appropriate place for this species and zoos across the globe are considering phasing them out. They feel pain, distress, happiness as well as sadness. The birth of a baby elephant is celebrated while they cry and mourn the death of a member of the herd. Nature has created elephants to live, survive and thrive in a particular habitat. The destruction of its natural habitat at the hands of the humans has brought this amazing species to a brink of extinction. The needs of this innocent creation cannot be met in the captive environment of a zoo.”

Justice Minallah also quotes a French playwright and screenwriter: “God loved birds and invented trees, Man loved the birds and invented cages.” The conditions of the caged birds in the Islamabad Zoo, the court observes, manifests neglect and a severe shortage of resources. Rats are in abundance while the caged birds are deprived of their basic needs, so much so that perching is also denied to them. Adequate animal husbandry facilities are also lacking, the court observed.

The judgment touches in detail on the cases of different animals across the world and how these cases were pursued. It also talks in detail about the sorry history of wildlife preservation in Pakistan where time and again laws were compromised to accommodate powerful interests. There is also mention of licences for the hunting of the next extinct Houbara Bustard and how time and again the government has failed in its duty to preserve the flora and fauna of Pakistan.

This judgment should be taught in schools all over Pakistan as part of the curriculum. It makes us ask basic questions and ponder over the mistakes we have made in the past. What better a time to think about this than now.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2020.

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