Denmark Rules That Preventing Vegans from Practising Their Ethical Convictions Breaches Fundamental Human Rights Law

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» Denmark Rules That Preventing Vegans from Practising Their Ethical Convictions Breaches Fundamental Human Rights Law

Dr Jeanette Rowley explains fundamental human rights and how they have been successfully used to protect vegans in Denmark

In February this year, a court in Hjørring, Denmark ruled that preventing vegans from living according to their dietary convictions breaches fundamental human rights. In this case, a vegan child was unable to attend a nursery school because they were required to consume food provided by the nursery which included meat and other animal products and, at the same time, the nursery refused the family permission to bring packed lunches from home. The court found that the child was treated worse than other children because they were vegan, and that they were subjected to indirect discrimination which could not be justified, and, therefore, amounted to a violation of Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR, the Convention) in conjunction with Article 9.

This decision aligns with information disseminated by the vegan Internation Rights Network, which was founded in 2012.

What are Articles 14 and 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Article 14 of the Convention concerns the prohibition of discrimination. It requires governments that have committed to uphold the rights contained in the Convention to ensure that these rights are guaranteed to everyone ensuring freedom from discrimination. The principle of non-discrimination is fundamental to the operation of the Convention. Discrimination against a vegan happens when they are treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation or when they are treated the same as someone else but, because they are vegan, they are disadvantaged.

Article 9 of the Convention concerns the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion (freedom of belief). Under Article 9, vegans have an absolute right to believe in veganism, and a qualified right to practice veganism free from unlawful interference. Lawful interference can only be justified if there is a law that is required in a democracy for a very good reason, such as in the interests of public safety, order, health or morals, or if the rights and freedoms of other people are jeopardised. If interference is deemed necessary on any of those grounds, it must be shown to be necessary to achieve a legitimate aim and must also be shown to be proportional to meeting that aim.

The decision of the Court in Denmark recognises that veganism falls within the legal meaning of the Article 9 right to freedom of belief, and that the right to be free to practice vegan ethical convictions was not secured to the vegan child as required under the Article 14 prohibition on discrimination.

Is the decision in Denmark the first time veganism has been recognised under human rights law?

Recognition that veganism falls within the scope of the freedoms stipulated in Article 9 of the Convention was first published in a case considered at the European court of Human Rights in 1993[i] and involved a prisoner detained in a United Kingdom prison. The prisoner complained that a requirement to work in the prison print shop violated their Article 9 rights because they would come into contact with dyes that were derived from non-human animals. The Commission’s decision was that although it found that veganism fell within the scope of the human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as set out in Article 9 of the Convention, the prison rules constituted a necessary law for the reason of maintaining good order in the prison. Further, the requirement to work in the prison print shop was proportional to meeting the aim of maintaining good order.

Isn’t veganism a trivial issue to deal with under human rights laws?

The human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is a primary human right that is broad in scope and recognised in formative international human rights documents. It concerns traditional and historical religions and beliefs, but it also protects non-religious beliefs, new beliefs, emerging beliefs, new or relatively new religions or spiritual practices, and various coherent and sincerely held philosophical convictions, such as veganism, which the European Court of Human Rights refers to as the opposition to the manipulation of products of animal origin or tested on animals.

Veganism is an ethical orientation that not only concerns strong and sincere convictions against the exploitation of non-human animals, but is also a practice-based way of life that respects the moral standing of non-human animals. While it is imperative that human rights laws are used to deal with atrocities involving loss of life, limb and liberty, they also exist for many other reasons and concern all people equally. Critically, invoking human rights to protect vegans and advance veganism helps deal with the trivialisation of vegan concerns about the exploitation of non-human animals.

In relation to the right to eat a vegan diet, it is recognised in human rights materials that dietary norms associated with one’s conscience must be respected and accommodated under Article 9. Judges at the European Court of Human Rights have the power to throw out ‘trivial’ cases but have not dismissed cases that claim a violation of Article 9 in relation to being denied a diet that aligns with moral convictions. Further, they have decided in favour of claimants.[ii]

The Article 9 right to freedom of belief and the Article 14 prohibition on discrimination concern everyone, including vegans, and it is not trivial to refer to these rights when vegan practice is unreasonably restricted. In fact, it is critical to our mission to protect non-human animals to invoke Article 9 to defend our right to live with compassion.

Why is it important to refer to human rights law instead of equality law?

It is important that vegans raising claims against public bodies refer to the protections afforded to them under the Article 9 right to freedom of belief for a number of reasons:

  • The human right to live according to one’s moral convictions free from interference and discrimination is entrenched in the International Bill of Rights.
  • It supports a legal strategy for broad vegan-inclusion and social change.
  • It ensures that unjustifiable discrimination is recognised in the most comprehensive way, as legitimate issues involving breaches of the fundamental right to freedom of belief and practice.
  • Invoking Article 9 rights puts the issue in the context of a well-established framework of international law that is broad in scope.
  • It aligns a domestic discrimination issue with international standards and obligations.
  • Successful vegan claims brought under Article 9 result in wide-reaching changes at the level of national government policy.

On the other hand:

  • Equality provisions can be limited, and vegans can experience difficulty arguing that a restriction on their vegan practice amounts to discrimination.
  • Equality provisions don’t necessarily refer to or interpret fundamental rights adequately. Cases might be discussed only in relation to specific circumstancesand consideration of the wider issues of a vegan’s right to practice their ethical convictions might not take place. This will result in limited outcomes for the vegan community as a whole.

The situation in the United Kingdom

In the UK, vegans have broad protection. Vegans in relationships with public bodies can invoke Article 9 and bring cases under the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998) and veganism is a protected characteristic in the category “religion or belief” for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Protection under this category looks to the legal meaning of Article 9, and vegans in private sector employment, education and as consumers of goods and services must not be discriminated against. Further, public bodies are subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) which requires them to go further than merely avoid discrimination. The PSED requires public bodies to give due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between protected groups, at the point of decision making. More information on the importance of Article 9 to the development of broader legal protection for vegans in the UK can be found here.

What is the background to this case and the scope of protection for vegans in Denmark?

In 2020, the Ministry of Justice in Denmark confirmed to parliament that successful cases heard at the European Court of Human Rights confirm that both vegetarians and vegans are protected by the Human Rights Convention, and, therefore, they have rights in relation to food provision in the public sector. On this basis, the Danish Institute for Human Rights recommended that the Danish Vegetarian Association raise legal challenges in court to determine the scope of protection. The case heard at the court in Hjørring is that vegans should not be treated worse than non-vegans, and a minimum outcome in this case is that pupils should not be prevented from taking a packed lunch into school. The case could also have wider influence and motivate other public sector institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, care and nursing homes etc. to provide for the dietary needs of vegans.

The Danish Vegetarian Association campaigns for a mandatory 100% plant-based meal option to be provided in all public sector catering facilities and to this end will continue to raise legal challenges. In April 2024, another court in Denmark will hear the case of a woman who was denied vegan food in hospital and told to bring a packed lunch for during childbirth.

Concluding comment

It is vital that we understand and continue to refer to the internationally agreed human right to be free to live according to our moral convictions free from discrimination. For Europeans, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights reflects this important value and is critical to bring about broad policy changes that protect vegans and advance veganism as part of the mission to end the exploitation of non-human animals.


[i] H v the UK (1993) 16 EHRR

[ii] Jakóbski v Poland [2010] ECHR 18429/06 and Vartic v Romania [2014] 14150/08.

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