Sri Lankan Lawyer pleads for Animal Rights
Posted on March 26th, 2017

Senaka Weeraratna

Colombo: The election for the 24th President of the Bar Association takes place on February 21, 2017 . Three candidates have presented nominations for the post of the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), namely Anura B. Maddegoda, U.R. de Silva and R. Thangaraja.

They have distributed their election manifesto to the members of the BASL.

While the manifestos address issues of much relevance to the members in respect to their day to day requirements and professional duties, and Human Rights, there is a corresponding deafening silence on Animal Rights.

Animals have no votes but their human friends who care for them and give them voice have votes and they will be very much influenced by the attitudes and policies towards animals on the part of the contestants.

Idealism and goal setting are important not only for a country but also for a profession. It would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty to providence and history if the current generation of lawyers in Sri Lanka were to remain oblivious to international trends that clearly show that the Animal Rights movement is destined to usher in the next great social revolution in the world.

We all know that there is a gradual progression throughout history towards recognizing the rights of others. It commenced with the emancipation of slaves, women, children in that order. It is an unstoppable march. Now the time has come to turn both our moral and legal attention to the plight of animals both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

It is very important that we must have as President of the Bar Association an energetic and visionary lawyer who is also mindful of the cruelty that is being perpetrated on animals, and is prepared to extend the patronage of the Bar Association and give a long overdue leadership to animal welfare issues, among other things, and become pro – active on animal issues.

The oft quoted words of Mahatma Gandhi that The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be gauged by the way its animals are treated” are equally applicable implicitly to a legal profession.

If law reform excludes animal welfare legislation from updating and pro bono legal services are lacking and inadequate to ensure justice for animals both within and outside court proceedings, then what does it say of a country’s system of law and its legal profession?

A life of an animal is dear to it as much as it is to us humans. It is not only a moral or ethical issue. It is also very much a Justice issue. Animals are the most inhumanely treated and victimized members of our moral community.

No lawyer worth his salt can deny this plain simple fact. To do otherwise is to draw attention to one’s insensitivity towards others or lack of a true sense of justice.

It is a sad fact of life that people who have a vested interest in abusing animals e.g. meat industry, are well protected by politicians on both sides of the divide. This is the prime cause for the unreasonable delay in the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill originally drawn by the Law Commission and handed over to the then President of the country, Mahinda Rajapakse in 2006. Since then eleven years (11) have elapsed and still there is no sight of an Animal Welfare Act.

We pride ourselves on our history. Sri Lanka, after all, is the land where Buddhism has held sway uninterrupted for a period of 2, 300 years and holds high the doctrine of the Buddha who preached ahimsa (non – violence) above all else. It is the land where Arahant Mahinda, son of Emperor Asoka of India, advised King Devanampiyatissa in their very first encounter at Mihintale, about 2300 years ago, in the following words:

Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it.”

This is one of the great ethical declarations of all time. Noble in scope and all encompassing it raised the bar and set the high moral and ethical standard for treatment of animals in Sri Lanka. This is undoubtedly an uplifting part of the proud heritage of this country.

The trusteeship power of the State under the Buddhist Kings was extended to protect animals, birds and other living creatures of the land, pursuant to this moving plea of Arahant Mahinda.

Today, however in modern day Sri Lanka, instead of evolving on this front we have regressed. It is a blot on the conscience of our nation and also the legal profession to allow a toothless statute, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, No. 13 of 1907, which imposes as maximum penalty, a fine of Rs. 100 even for the most heinous crime committed on an animal, to remain as the primary legislation on animal protection, on the statute book.

The present laws against animal cruelty (Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ord., 1907) are outdated, obsolete, ineffective and poorly enforced. The Animal Welfare Bill is intended to replace this archaic law. Its provisions provide an effective deterrent, through adequate penalties and punishments for violations of the legislation. But there is no political will among lawmakers to make this happen to the great detriment of the interests of animals. This is a great shame and national embarrassment.

Several countries have elevated the rights of animals to that of constitutional rights to protect their dignity and honour. Unfortunately Sri Lanka again lags behind on this score despite having a splendid pre-colonial history of a heightened animal friendly cultural heritage.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka must establish an Animal Law Committee charged with a mission to address all issues concerning the intersection of animals and the law to create a paradigm shift resulting in a just world for all living beings. The status of animals in our legal system and in our society must get mainstream public attention such that the Rule of Law extends to not only humans but animals as well, ideally speaking. Due process protection, fair compensation when an animal is destroyed or injured, standards of care and accountability for animals deployed in industry and agriculture, phasing out of animal prisons (deceptively called Zoos) within a short period, giving expanding definitions to the notions of what constitutes ‘cruelty to animals’ and ensuring that the interests of wild animals e.g. wild elephants, are taken best care of in contexts of competing interests of wild animals and human beings for dwindling resources, are some of the challenges that lie ahead for both the legal profession and animal lovers. Current laws limit the legal options available to those who are seeking to protect captive animals, stray animals and wildlife. This must be changed.

The incoming President of the Bar Association must accept the challenge to lobby the Govt. of Sri Lanka together with animal rights activists, to enact the Animal Welfare Bill without any delay as the first step towards securing the legislative protection of animals. He must be prepared to encourage young lawyers in particular to give their time and effort for animal advocacy work both within and outside the courtroom. BASL must strive to make sure that animals have adequate legal representation and advocacy where it matters. These endeavours may sound far fetched and absurd but if one were to look closely at the Animal Rights scene in USA and many other western countries, they will see that these practices are well entrenched in those legal cultures.

Sri Lanka must strive not only for economic advancement but also accept the moral challenge to be in step with legislative reform taking place in the civilized world to bring animals within the fold of sentient beings worthy of extending respect and dignity, and legal and constitutional protection. As far as possible equity demands that we bring animals within the ambit of justice. We must not leave this burden to the next generation(s) of lawyers.

Finally, we must be inspired by the roots of Sri Lanka’s own spiritual history in the pre-colonial era which always promoted harmonious inter-linking of humans and non – human living beings and our planetary environment.

[Senaka Weeraratna, the author of this article is an Attorney – at – Law and Chapter Leader, Dharma Voices for Animals, Colombo, Sri Lanka Chapter. Courtesy Asian Tribune]

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