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A while back, I wrote a quicktake about how the Belgian Senate voted to enshrine animal welfare in the Constitution.

It's been a journey. I work for GAIA, a Belgian animal advocacy group that for years has tried to get animal welfare added to the constitution. Today we were present as a supermajority of the senate came out in favor of our proposed constitutional amendment. [...]

It's a very good day for Belgian animals but I do want to note that:

  1. This does not mean an effective shutdown of the meat industry, merely that all future pro-animal welfare laws and lawsuits will have an easier time.  And,
  2. It still needs to pass the Chamber of Representatives.

If there's interest I will make a full post about it if once it passes the Chamber.


It is now my great pleasure to announce to you that a supermajority of the Chamber also voted in favor of enshrining animal welfare in the Constitution. Article 7a of the Belgian Constitution now reads as follows:

In the exercise of their respective powers, the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions shall ensure the protection and welfare of animals as sentient beings.

This inclusion of animals as sentient beings is notable as it represents the fourth major revision of the Constitution in favor of individual rights. Previous revisions have addressed universal suffrage, gender equality, and the rights of people with disabilities.

TL;DR: The significance of this inclusion extends beyond symbolic value. It will have tangible effects on animal protection in Belgium:

  1. Fundamental Value: Animal welfare is now recognized as a fundamental value of Belgian society. In cases where a constitutional right conflicts with animal protection, the latter will hold greater legal weight and must be seriously considered. For example, this recognition may facilitate the implementation of a country-wide ban on slaughter without anesthesia, as both freedom of religion and animal welfare are now constitutionally protected.
  2. Legislative Guidance: The inclusion of animal welfare will encourage legislative and executive bodies to prioritize laws aimed at improving animal protection while rejecting those that may undermine it. Regressive measures with certain interests (e.g. purely financial interests) will face increased scrutiny as they are weighed against the constitutional protection of animal welfare.
  3. Legal Precedent: In legal cases involving animals, whether criminal or civil, judges will be influenced by the values enshrined in the Constitution. This awareness may lead to greater consideration of animal interests in judicial decisions.
     

Legal importance

In the hierarchy of Belgian legal norms, the Constitution is at the very top. This means that lower regulations (the laws of the federal and regional parliament(s), the regulations of local governments and executive orders) must comply with the Constitution.

If different rights must be weighed against one another, the one that is enshrined in the Constitution is deemed more important. Previously, religious freedom was in the Constitution and animal welfare was not, meaning the former carried more weight. Article 19 of the Constitution merely states that the exercise of worship is free unless crimes (criminal violations of law) are committed in the course of that exercise. There have been many attempts to ban unanesthetized slaughter; in some regions they were successful, in others not, in all of them they led to fierce legal debate and lengthy proceedings. Enshrining animal welfare in the constitutional will finally ensure a full victory for the animals.

(The exercise of other fundamental rights besides religious freedom can also have a negative impact on animal welfare; e.g., freedom of expression can allow an artist to mistreat an animal in an exhibition, but in this post I will focus on the meat industry since that has the bigger impact).

GAIA's experience with the ban on unanesthetized slaughter

We can divide Belgium into three main legislative regions: Flanders, Walloon and Brussels. Right now, there is a ban on unanesthetized slaughter in Flanders and Walloon, but not in Brussels. The ban on unanesthetized slaughter in the Flemish and Walloon Regions was very difficult to obtain, since religious freedom was protected in the Belgian Constitution but animal welfare was not. A ban on non-anesthetized slaughter generated a lot of protest from religious groups, who base this on the constitutionally protected right to religious freedom. This allows the burden of proof to then shift to animal welfare advocates, such as GAIA, to prove that a ban on unanesthetized slaughter is compatible with freedom of religion. This reversal of the burden of proof made it very difficult, in practice, to protect animals.

On December 17, 2020, the Court of Justice ruled in this case that the Flemish ban on unanesthetized slaughter is nevertheless a legitimate restriction on religious freedom. However, the practical experience with and complexity of this procedure made it clear that putting animal welfare on equal constitutional footing with other rights must be a priority. While Brussels has voted against banning unanesthetized slaughter in the past, now that animal welfare is constitutionally enshrined, banning it should be way easier. (I don't know to what extent this advice generalizes; it may be that your country's constitution is less important or that the entire legislative landscape is different, but it's at least worth considering)
 

Belgian animal welfare law

Belgium is now the 5th EU Member State to confer constitutional protection on animals, joining Germany (2002), Slovenia (1991), Luxembourg (2007) and Italy (2022), with animals also being recognized in the constitutions of Austria (2013), Switzerland (1973), Egypt (2014), Brazil (1988) and India (1976).

Besides the eight-year battle to add animal welfare to the Constitution, GAIA has also fought to add animal welfare to the Civil Code. On Jan. 30, 2020, the Chamber of Representatives approved a bill to insert Article 3.39 into the Civil Code. This provision states "animals have sensory capacity and have biological needs. The provisions relating to physical objects shall apply to animals, subject to the legal and regulatory provisions for the protection of animals and public order."

This legislation seems to indicate that, in addition to the legal categories of "persons" and "goods," animals constitute a third separate legal category, to which the legal rules on goods continue to apply. The result of this legislation is that judges in civil disputes over, e.g., custody or visitation rights of dogs in divorce proceedings can make their decision in the best interest of the animal. Or the interest of animals can prevail in bankruptcies of animal breeders, where the animals are sold to the highest bidder in chaotic circumstances.
 

Political analysis

There is a saying in Belgium about Belgian politics: "If you think you understand Belgian politics, you have not understood Belgian politics". As such I will not try to explain the whole political landscape, but in order to point to some interesting political trends I will paint a simplified picture. I will briefly describe the parties and then compare how they voted for this amendment.

Political parties

(You can skip to "How the parties voted" if you don't care about the complexities of Belgian politics and just want to see how the left vs the right voted)

Belgian politics are complex, characterized by distinct parties for the Walloon and Flemish regions. In Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, voters can only cast ballots for Flemish parties, and similarly, in Wallonia voters can only cast votes for Walloon parties. (These parties form part of the federal government, but there are also regional governments with their own specific powers. The structure is confusing, even to Belgians).

VOORUIT (Flemish) and PS (Walloon) are social democratic parties advocating for the improvement of working conditions for the middle and lower classes.

OPEN-VLD (Flemish) and MR (Walloon) champion a neo-liberal, center-right agenda with a focus on market economy and liberal progressive values.

GROEN (Flemish) and Ecolo (Walloon) are the green parties, focusing on progressive values and environmental issues.

CD&V (Flemish) is a Christian centrist party with a semi-conservative stance, focusing on broad family values. LE (Walloon) is secular and more progressive.

Vlaams Belang, active only in Flanders, is a far-right, nationalist, and separatist party.

N-VA, also exclusive to Flanders, is a right-wing nationalist party with a liberal agenda.

DéFI is a center-right party dedicated to protecting the interests of French-speaking Belgians.

PTB-PVDA is a left to far-left Marxist party active in both regions, championing socialist ideals such as higher taxes for the rich, and support for the underprivileged and discriminated.

Overall, Belgium exhibits regional political polarization. Flanders leans significantly to the right with Vlaams Belang and N-VA being predominant, while Wallonia is more left-leaning with their parties often being more leftwing than their Flemish counterparts and with major parties being PS and PTB-PVDA.

Obligatory political compass (black border means Flemish party):

How the parties voted

I made a table visualizing how the parties voted ordered roughly from leftwing to rightwing while trying to keep linguistically split parties together (e.g. LE is in reality left of Open VLD). I gave the Flemish parties italics and since I can't add color I used emojis to make scanning easier (no extra meaning intended).

✅ means a vote in favor    ❌ means a vote against    ⏹ means abstention

#votes

PVDA

🔴

ECOLO

❇️

GROEN

❇️

PS

🔺

VOORUIT

🔺

MR

🔵

O-VLD

🔵

Défi

🌸

LE

🐬

CD&V

🔶

N-VA

🔆

VB

⬛️

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3 
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5 
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7  
8  
9   
10     
11       
12       
13        
14          
15          
16           

So the Walloon parties were more in favor than the Flemish ones. Given that Wallonia is more progressive this doesn't surprise me. Leftwing parties also voted more in favor, again no surprise there, but it's interesting to note that the far-right parties were less against it than the center-right parties. Now some people didn't show up to vote, so maybe that would have changed things slightly, but overall this seems to be a general trend in Belgian animal welfare politics.

I don't follow most countries' politics. I can't say I see a similar trend in US legislation, but then again the two party system makes it harder to observe the political spectrum. I do follow Dutch politics reasonably well, and I think I observe a similar trend there:

Far-right animal welfare politics

In the Netherlands there is a far-right party called the PVV (currently also the largest party) which has a track record of being animal friendly. Not as animal friendly as the leftwing parties, but still much more animal friendly than the centrist and center-right parties. In 2021 the 'party for the animals' introduced a law that would expand animal rights and, under the strictest reading, would ban factory farming. The PVV voted in favor. This aspect of the party is primarily pushed for by party member Dion Graus who has been with the PVV since 2006 when the party first entered the Chamber. So how does one combine xenophobia and animal welfare concerns? Well to hear him tell it, it's a natural combination:

Whenever there's an abuse case, I often deal with the local police or the public prosecutor, and indeed, it's often immigrants who are abusing the animals. And I mean on the street too, those who kick ducks around and stuff. [...] You won't quickly see immigrants in a circus or a zoo; they just have nothing to do with animals.

In 2010 the PVV introduced 500 "Animal Cops" to act against animal cruelty. When looking at how they voted in the past, you can see that while all the parties that voted equally or more in favor of pro-animal welfare policies are leftwing, they perform much better than the center and rightwing parties:

Yes, the other far-right parties (JA21 and FVD) aren't good for animals, but they're also way smaller (PVV: 37 seats, JA21: 1 seat, FVD: 3 seats).

So now that they are finally the largest party, do they go ahead and use that voting power to introduce more pro-animal policies? No. In fact, they voted against that 2021 animal welfare law that they voted for earlier. And this is a trend that keeps worsening.

So what can explain this strange behavior? Well here's my hypothesis: Far-right parties don't really care about animals; it's just an indirect way to screw over Muslims, and when they're in power, they will not focus on expanding animal rights.
The PVV is now trying to form a coalition; we'll see if my prediction holds up soon. In the meantime, we can look at countries where there isn't an influx of Muslim immigrants and see if the far-right cares about animal welfare there (my guess is they don't).

So in conclusion, the leftwing votes way more in favor of expanding animal rights, and while the rightwing is generally against it, the far-right can be less against it than the center-right. Thus, for other people looking to expand animal rights, focus on recruiting leftwing people, they vote the most reliably.

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Thanks for writing this up Bob! And congratulations again to everyone who worked on this.

 I would be interested to understand logistically how this happened. Who worked on it? What roles did they play? Were there political champions or was this mostly driven by grassroots support?  How much lobbying was done of the different parties and what form did that lobbying take?

 As someone who considers "wild animal suffering" to be by far the most pressing issue on earth (as it has been since the emergence of conscious animal life), I think this news is a step of advancement in terms of battling extreme suffering.

It is my view that those who wage war against wild animal suffering should not tackle the problem head-on. It seems much more politically prudent to champion veganism of some sort (or perhaps more specifically, the humane slaughter of farm animals, as Brian Tomasik suggests here), in order to first increase the general public's concern for animal welfare.

It is to this median-goal that the Belgian Constitution contributes, by: 

  1. Imposing a general duty upon the various levels of government to protect the "welfare" of animals, and
  2. To recognize "animals" as "sentient beings" (whose extent of coverage, I assume, will be subject to numerous legal debates).

I think it is important to note that other constitutions (that refer to animals) are written in ways that actually (one could argue) have a net negative impact on wild animal welfare. For example, Article 19 of Italy's Constitution states that the Republic must "safeguard the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems."[1] My concern here is that, if in the future, an extinction of certain species (done as humanely as possible) becomes necessary to reduce wildlife suffering, then this curious human obsession with "biodiversity" (enshrined in the Constitution!) would be a hindrance. 

  1. ^

    Similarly, Article 78, Paragraph 4 of the Swiss Constitution states that the government "shall legislate on the protection of animal and plant life and on the preservation of their natural habitats and their diversity. It shall protect endangered species from extinction." And Paragraph 5 says: "Moors and wetlands of special beauty and national importance shall be preserved." 

    So much for the human eye! Our "intellectual delight"—this parasite in our brains existing as some kind of self-propagating creature feeding on the visual input of "wonderful-colorful diversity"—has convinced our other neurons that they've no reason to investigate deeper into nature; that what appears to us less colorful must be less wonderful for the animals, too! My friends, I declare that humanity has thus far been a slave to this parasite! 

Are there any resources that inform your views on biodiversity that you'd recommend others read? I'd be curious to learn more!

 

I remember someone giving a talk on the topic at EAGxCambridge but I couldn't quickly find who this was unfortunately

Hello,

The idea is just that championing biodiversity logically entails a strong resistance to habitat destruction and even extinction of certain species (if it be necessary to reduce suffering). For example, if we could (in the future if technology advances sufficiently):

  1. Gradually eliminate a certain predator species in an ecological area (ex. wolves) (as peacefully as possible, perhaps by birth control), and
  2. Also control the prey population from getting out of hand (again, perhaps by some advanced birth control technology)

Then this may (all else equal) reduce the total amount of suffering in the wild, since the prey population in that area are no longer being torn apart by predators and living in constant fear of them. Yet, the supporter of biodiversity would resist this intervention, since it entails the immediate reduction of biodiversity via the elimination of the predator species. 

Brian Tomasik has some interesting discussions touching on this topic. I also found this paper which is quite technical but it directly address this issue.

Nice post, Bob!

So what can explain this strange behavior? Well here's my hypothesis: Far-right parties don't really care about animals; it's just an indirect way to screw over Muslims, and when they're in power, they will not focus on expanding animal rights.

My impression is that far-right parties are more populist and willing to change their goals depending on what is useful to gain/keep power. So I wonder whether in your case far-right parties simply supported animals to gain power, and not so much because of Muslims. There is still the question of why such parties not support animal welfare afterwards, but maybe there was no longer much room to gain power once they were the largest party.

The PVV is currently in formation with a right wing party, a moderate/Christian democrat right wing party, and a farmers party. Voting pro animal welfare would have complicated the formation.

In addition, I doubt that many far right voters are more pro animal welfare than pro-rural/pro-farmers. To me, this seems like it was a legitimate belief held by a few people high in the party they had to give up for strategic reasons.

I don't think it was a way to screw over Muslims.

Good news, thanks for the article !

This is great to see! Thanks for the write-up

Executive summary: The Belgian Constitution now enshrines animal welfare, which will have significant legal and practical implications for improving animal protection in the country.

Key points:

  1. Animal welfare is now recognized as a fundamental value in Belgian society, carrying greater legal weight when in conflict with other constitutional rights.
  2. The inclusion will encourage prioritizing animal protection laws and increased scrutiny of measures that may undermine animal welfare.
  3. In legal cases involving animals, judges will be influenced to give greater consideration to animal interests in their decisions.
  4. Belgium is the 5th EU country to give animals constitutional protection, joining Germany, Slovenia, Luxembourg, and Italy.
  5. Politically, left-wing parties in Belgium voted more in favor of the amendment, while far-right parties were less opposed than center-right parties.
  6. The author hypothesizes that far-right parties may use animal welfare as an indirect way to target Muslim immigrants, rather than genuinely caring about animal rights.

 

 

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