Should great apes have 'human rights'?

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Celebrating 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an opportune moment to ask whether it is time for the other great apes to be granted ‘human rights’. Nonhuman great apes are not human beings and therefore ‘human rights’ is inappropriate terminology in this context. Nevertheless there is a strong argument for granting great apes fundamental legal rights such as bodily liberty (freedom from slavery) and bodily integrity (freedom from torture). For some readers this suggestion may seem odd or laughable. But John Stuart Mill astutely recognised that “each time there is a movement to confer rights upon some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable. This is partly because until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’—those who are holding rights at the time” (Mill J (1859) p.126). Although Mill’s words related to the controversial debate of his time – whether women were rational beings deserving of a legal right to vote – the wisdom of his words ring true to the current controversial debate – whether great apes are rational and emotional beings deserving of a legal right to freedom from torture and slavery. This debate is not pure academic speculation. Questions as to the legal personhood of chimpanzees have recently arisen in international cases.
Original languageEnglish
JournalWeb Journal of Current Legal Issues
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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