What rights do vegans have?

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International Law

Our rights as vegans begins with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (The Declaration). Two international covenants give legal effect to the Articles of the Declaration. These are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). They restate our rights and indicate the obligations of member nations.

A vegan interpretation of rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  • Under Article 1 of The Declaration, vegans are equal in dignity and rights.
  • Under Article 7 of The Declaration, vegans are equal before the law and entitled without discrimination to equal protection of the law.
  • Under Article 18 vegans are entitled to their belief and have the right to manifest their belief in teaching and practice. This is a particularly important article for veganism. Beliefs that qualify for protection under human rights law typically concern a life lived with deep convictions. Qualifying beliefs under human rights can be religious or non-religious in nature.
  • Under Article 22 a vegan is entitled to social and cultural rights indispensable for their dignity and free development of their personality.
  • Under Article 25 a vegan is entitled to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being including food, medical care and social services.
  • Under Article 26 vegans have the right to a vegan education.
  • Under Article 28 vegans are entitled to a social order in which their vegan rights are respected and provided for.
  • Under Article 29(2) law can limit a vegan’s right to exercise rights and freedoms only if, in exercising their rights, vegans do not recognise or respect the rights and freedoms of others; or if in pursuing their vegan rights, vegans compromise society’s moral code, public order or the aims of a democratic society.

Signatory nations are allowed to state specific understandings and enter reservations against the articles of human rights Covenants. For example, some nations may enter a reservation against the Article 18 right to freedom of belief claiming that any such provision ought to be read in line with Islamic Shariah. Other nations may restrict the interpretation of this Article to traditional religious beliefs involving the worship of deities. Other nations interpret the Article 18 right to freedom of belief very widely and provide protective rights for both religious and secular beliefs equally. For example, in the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission states explicitly that veganism is within the scope of human rights provisions. The interpretation of the Equality and Human Rights Commission stems from a wide interpretation of the meaning of Article 18 but also from the legal reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights where a case concerning veganism was discussed in 1993.

A vegan interpretation of rights under the ICCPR

  • Under Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, vegans have the right to self-determination, social and cultural development.
  • Under Article 2 of the ICCPR, a state must respect human rights without distinction of any kind.
  • Under Article 2 (3) (a) if vegan rights have been violated, the state must do whatever is necessary to give effect to our rights.
  • Under Article 18 we have the right to our vegan belief and the right to manifest our belief in teaching and practice. This Article is taken directly from the UDHR and states explicitly that nobody should be coerced into a belief not of their choosing. This is particularly important when we think about the power of the non-vegan society we are born into. It raises very important questions about the way being born into a non-vegan society may be totally coercive.
  • Under Article 26 member nations must enact laws prohibiting discrimination against us as vegans and guarantee our equality.
  • Under Article 27 minority cultures must be allowed to enjoy and practice their culture.

A vegan interpretation of rights under ICESCR

  • Under Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, member nations must guarantee our vegan rights without discrimination.
  • Under Article 6 we have the right to freely choose employment.
  • Under Article 10 (3) member nations are required to take special measures to protect children from anything which affects their morals or health.
  • Under Article 13 (3) member nations must respect our convictions in the moral education of our children.

The UDHR, the Articles contained in the ICCPR, the ICESCR and other legislation appear straightforward. However, when a case is presented to court there is often much more to discuss than anticipated. Law is very complex and though under human rights law veganism may be deemed a qualifying belief, the government of a nation may be allowed to interfere with the practice of veganism in certain circumstances. The freedom to practice veganism, however, may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (read it here) focuses on the rights of individuals to live out their lives according to their deep convictions.

  • Article 1
    1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have a religion or whatever belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
    2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have a religion or belief of his choice. (Again, this is particularly interesting for those of us who feel we are born into a coercive non-vegan society).
    3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  • Article 2
    1. No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State, institution, group of persons or person on grounds of religion or other beliefs.
    2. For the purposes of the present Declaration, the expression intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief; means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis.
  • Article 3
    1. Discrimination between human beings on grounds of religion or belief constitutes an affront to human dignity and a disavowal of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and shall be condemned as a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and enunciated in detail in the International Covenants on Human Rights, and as an obstacle to friendly and peaceful relations between nations.
  • Article 4
    1. All States shall take effective measures to prevent and eliminate discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms in all fields of civil, economic, political, social and cultural life.
    2. All States shall make all efforts to enact or rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit any such discrimination, and to take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion or other beliefs in this matter.
  • Article 5
    1. The parents or, as the case may be, the legal guardians of the child have the right to organize the life within the family in accordance with their religion or belief and bearing in mind the moral education in which they believe the child should be brought up.
    2. Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with the wishes of his parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, and shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents or legal guardians, the best interests of the child being the guiding principle.
    3. The child shall be protected from any form of discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, respect for freedom of religion or belief of others, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

The international community employs a Special Rapporteur to oversee implementation of these important rights and equality provisions. The current Special Rapporteur for the freedom of religion and belief is Mr. Ahmed Shaheed. You can watch a video clip of a former Special Rapporteur, Mr Bielefeldt, talking about the importance of being allowed to live according to your non-religious deep convictions here.

The right to culturally acceptable food

The right to food is provided for in international law. Although this right is typically talked about in the context of poverty or crisis situations, it is a right that has some scope for a vegan claim to the kind of diet that is needed.
The right to adequate food is contained in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It imposes a requirement on governments to ensure everyone has adequate food. It also requires governments to inform wider society about good nutrition.

The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has provided an explanation of what duties and responsibilities governments have in relation to this Article. It makes an important point about the right to food being met when everyone has physical and economic access to adequate food. The right to food is taken very seriously by official international organisations that oversee implementation of international law. With regard to the right to food, the United Nations has appointed a Special Rapporteur who is responsible for checking and reporting on how this right is being met by governments.

The Special Rapporteur has given a definition of the right to food being:

"The right to have regular, permanent and free access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear."

(UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Jean Ziegler, Promotion and Protection of all Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, including the Right to Development, 2008, para. 17.)

The importance of this right for vegans is that it is defined as the right to food that corresponds to the culture. As such, it is a right owed to all vegans when in relationships with state authorities. This means for example, state owned schools, health services, care homes, prisons and when a vegan is employed by the state. It also covers the circumstances where governments are providing free food in the context of the recent economic crisis, at “food banks”.

European Law

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was being developed around the same time as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and repeats many of the provisions. Some nations will be signatory to both the ECHR and the International Bill of Rights (this is the collective name given to the UDHR and the two Covenants that give effect to the provisions of the initial Declaration). One of the important Articles of the ECHR that can be applied to vegans is Article 9. This Article repeats the paramount universal human rights principle of being able to live according to one’s own ethical convictions free from interference.

ARTICLE 9 - Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
  2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

This Article grants an absolute right to believe what you want to believe and a qualified right to manifest, in practice, the daily behaviours that accompany your belief. This is an important consideration for veganism because veganism is a practice based belief and any interference that limits a vegan's practice may amount to coercion into a belief not of their choosing.

Under this Article, in 1991 a case concerning veganism was brought by a vegan prisoner who was required under the prison rules to work in the prison print facility. The applicant believed that the dye he would have to work with had been tested on animals and that he would therefore be required to rescind his veganism and comply with non-vegan practices. This case is known as H v the UK (ECtHR App. 18187/91). The Commission of the European Court of Human Rights, along with the UK Government agreed that veganism was within the scope of Article 9 but used the concept of proportionality to conclude that the vegan concerned would nevertheless be required to work in the prison print facility. It was decided in this case that interference was lawful, because the prison rules were in place for the reason of order in the prison, and that the requirement was proportional.

What this case illustrates is that even though veganism is protected under Article 9, the state nevertheless had the power to limit a vegan’s practice of veganism and enforce assimilation into a belief not of their choosing. The purpose of Article 9 is the same as Article 18 of the UDHR and the ICCPR: to ensure that human beings can live according to their ethical convictions without state interference. However, as can be seen by Article 9 (2), freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs can be limited by laws that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The problem for veganism is, of course, that the assumption for the application of law is that we all agree that it is acceptable to use animals.

However, the legal reasoning concerning the validity of veganism as a way of life concerning deep convictions that comes within the scope of human rights law sent a clear message throughout Europe. It was to be observed within the community that there is a legal duty to accommodate vegans when assessing the breadth of Article 9 of the ECHR. As such, all European nations ought to recognise in their domestic legislation the duty owed to veganism as a non-religious belief that qualifies for human rights protection. The sad truth is however that many nations retain an interpretation of Article 9 as a provision that concerns religious beliefs only despite being under a duty to prevent discrimination.

The ECHR is law that regulates your relationship with the state. In the UK the provisions of the Convention are given effect in the Human Rights Act 1998. This means that your national law ought to protect the non-religious ethical convictions of vegans particularly when vegans deal with state authorities such as prisons, schools, hospitals, or any other state owned enterprise. If you are employed by the state as a police officer for example, your request for vegan-friendly shoes should not be refused. This is because if you are required to wear a uniform made from animal products, you could, arguably, claim that such a requirement was forcing you to assimilate into cultural beliefs not of your choosing and that your ethical choice was being interfered with by your government. Of course, you would need to ascertain that vegan-friendly uniform items were available and that they meet any safety requirement stipulated by your employer in the interests of your health and safety and their duties and responsibilities to you.

The Council of the European Union issues equality directives. These pertain to the principle of non-discrimination. An important directive dates back to the year 2000. It states that its provisions are written with respect to the European Convention. Where equality law uses the expression “religion and belief” it should be interpreted consistently with the Convention. This means that equality law should also provide for vegans.

UK Equality Law

Equality law applies to veganism and outlaws:

  • Unfair treatment as a result of being vegan.
  • Treatment that puts you at a disadvantage due to being vegan.
  • Harassment because you are vegan.
  • Victimisation because you are vegan.

You are protected from any unwanted conduct that:

  • Violates your dignity.
  • Causes you to feel humiliated (subjective feelings).
  • Creates a degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

In employment this means that:

  • If your employer provides food, you have the right to request and receive vegan food. For example, a working lunch.
  • If you require safety wear, you have the right to request and receive vegan alternatives to standard equipment made from animal products, where these are available and comply with required specifications.
  • You have the right not to be humiliated or have to cope with an offensive or degrading environment as a result of jokes or other remarks from your colleagues.
  • If your employer has a practice or policy which puts you at a disadvantage because you are vegan you have the right to request that the policy be amended. For example, a common practice is the office purchase of dairy milk. If you do not feel comfortable contributing or taking a turn to collect this product then it is reasonable to request exemption.

Socially, equality provisions mean that:

  • You have the right not to be treated unfairly or disadvantageously by any service provider because you are vegan. This includes the catering industry.
  • You have the right to request and be provided with vegan food. This applies to hotels, airlines and other public transport.

Our challenges

We know that there are many cases involving the unfair treatment of vegans, but very few of these are taken to court. Taking a case to court either at the local or the European level involves a lot of effort, is very time consuming, can be expensive and is likely to involve considerable stress. 

In summary

The issues vegans face in their daily attempt to live with according to their values range from inadvertent unfair treatment to direct discrimination and institutional exclusion. For example:

  • In Hungary, there is a decree that school children eat 'meat' and other 'animal products'.
  • In some countries, including Germany and Austria, legal provisions that protect religious and non-religious beliefs exclude veganism.
  • In the UK vegans have been excluded from applying for employment, veganism has been cited in a serious case of bullying and a former Justice Secretary ridiculed vegans in parliament.
  • In the UK, the BBC permits unlawful comments and 'jokes' against vegans.
  • Despite veganism being recognised within the UK as coming within the scope of human rights protection, a Public Authority refused to accommodate the needs of a vegan, claiming that veganism is not a qualifying protected belief but a mere opinion.
  • Despite the European Court of Human Rights making the provision of food on ethical grounds a human rights priority at the court, prisoners in European prisons still struggle for vegan food.
  • A vegan's employment contract was terminated due to non-compliance with a requirement to have an egg-based vaccination despite not needing it for his job.
  • A vegan employee was called 'a freak' by a colleague of his because of his vegan belief and lifestyle.
  • A catering company said to a vegan that they could provide for vegan diet. They even provided the menu in writing. When the vegan asked for the ingredients of a specific item in the menu, it transpired that the 'vegan' menu had ingredients derived from nonhuman animals.
  • A Swiss citizen was not allowed to join the army because he was vegan.
  • A vegan felt that she had to define her ethical lifestyle as Hindu in order to receive a medical test that was suitable for vegans instead of the standard one that used products that come from cows' blood.
  • Vegans have been being dismissed from their jobs because of their convictions.
  • A vegan was forced, by a court, to provide and cook meat for her child.
  • An Italian Minister singled out veganism as a dangerous diet and blamed parents for imposing their moral crusade on their children.
  • Vegans have been refused vegan food from Public Authorities while they were under their care.
  • There are cases in which vegan parents have had their children taken from them because their vegan diet was deemed dangerous for their children.
  • A vegan employee of a Public Authority was refused suitable appropriate safety footwear while the employer allocated a few thousand pounds in order to accommodate the religious needs of a colleague.
  • Legal cases show that veganism is often referred to by the medical profession as an 'extreme diet' and has been accused of being a contributing factor in the malnourishment and death of an infant.
  • In Canada, a teenager requested vegan food and the request was labelled by a doctor as a 'likely manifestation of mental instability'.
  • There are reports of young vegan pupils suffering humiliation in class by their teachers when giving presentations about veganism, and have been forced to perform acts against their beliefs, such as feeding captive animals that were kept on the school premises.
  • In Canada, a vegan explained at a tribunal that her postgraduate studies were unfairly affected because her professor rejected the validity of her thesis that promoted the equality of human and nonhuman moral standing.
  • A prison official stated that the provision of vegan items is a privilege that can be denied.
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