What does human rights reform have to do with veganism?

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What does human rights reform have to do with veganism?

International Rights Network Lawyer Sean McHale explains:

The government has published its review and consultation on proposed changes to the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA 1998). However, what does this mean for veganism and future vegan campaigns?

First of all, it is important to have a brief understanding of the current legal position in relation to veganism. The key foundations of legal rights for vegans and veganism, in terms of court cases, stem from the notable Casamitjana case but also, importantly, that of W v The United Kingdom in 1993 in which both the United Kingdom (UK) government and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) recognised that veganism attracted protection under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

In the Casamitjana case, the Employment Tribunal decided that ethical veganism was a protected characteristic for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Within the Judgment, the Judge stated that the relevant section of the Equality Act 2010, section 10 ‘consciously mirrors’ Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The European Convention on Human Rights was given effect in UK law in 1998 by way of the Human Rights Act 1998 – with Article 9 above becoming section 12 of the HRA 1998.

How has the HRA 1998 benefited vegans?

Previously, vegan and environmental campaigners have successfully used the HRA 1998 to advance rights for vegans and ethical veganism such as in: prison service catering, the provision of suitable footwear for police officers, nurses and firefighters, provision of school food and plant-based milk. Through the use of the Public Sector Equality Duty, vegans have been accommodated in school tasks, assessments, and been excused from school trips to zoos and aquariums. Where possible, vegans have also been provided with vegan medications. However, due to Brexit, the application of the ECHR to the UK has been unclear (whilst the UK has committed to still be bound by human rights treaties, it has not specifically committed to the ECHR). The newly published HRA consultation now clarifies the position - the ECHR is not to have direct effect in UK law and the HRA 1998 is to be replaced with a new ‘Bill of Rights’.

The Human Rights Act Consultation

The consultation commissioned by the government (led by Dominic Raab’s Justice department) puts these hard-fought-for rights under threat. The consultation proposes the implementation of a ‘review stage’ for human rights-related legal action – essentially that proposed cases need the permission of the government to be presented to the courts. The government insists that this is necessary to avoid frivolous or spurious cases – the obvious question here is why should the government be the arbiter of which human rights actions have merit or otherwise? Furthermore, this clearly undermines the principle of sovereignty of the courts, supposedly the entire basis for the consultation following Brexit. It seems an important moment to remember that Dominic Raab thought that the Black Lives Matter protest symbol of taking the knee was an act that had been adopted from The Game of Thrones TV series – rather than a long-standing tradition of Black civil rights movements. Is someone with such opinions likely to consider veganism as a substantial issue in modern society?

A further significant concern within the consultation for ethical veganism is that the government is seeking to avoid the imposition of positive obligations upon public authorities. The consultation proposes that human rights legislation should be simply concerned with not interfering with an individual’s liberty as opposed to ensuring a public authority acts in a particular way. The obvious implication in this respect is that it would, in the future, prevent similar changes to the law as those implemented before following campaigns to ensure the prison service, educational institutions, and other public authorities provide alternatives to accommodate the needs of vegans.

What is clear from the consultation is that it is a highly politicised document, which seeks to take away power from individuals, human rights campaigners, and the courts, and seeks to impose the government’s restrictive agenda upon human rights legislation – which it clearly sees as a hindrance to government and public authorities under its control. It is only recently, in 2015, that vegans were considered extremists under the government’s Prevent counterterrorism programme. Furthermore, even though it has been accepted for decades that veganism is considered as an expression of freedom of conscience, this has been attacked by Conservative members of the House of Lords. Therefore, it is highly important that vegan campaigners and activists understand the gravity of the reforms and seek to prevent and object to their imposition in order to safeguard the rights of vegans today and for generations to come. The Vegan Society has been engaged with campaigns in relation to human rights and will continue to do so.

Further comment from Dr Jeanette Rowley, chair of The Vegan Society’s International Rights Network

Dr Jeanette Rowley, chair of The Vegan Society’s International Rights Network, further explains that there is overwhelming evidence of widespread support for the Human Rights Act 1998, and rather than human rights reform, it is human rights education that is most urgent. For example, vegans are largely unaware that their right to live according to their ethical convictions relating to the exploitation of animals and animal rights has been recognised under the human right to freedom of conscience since 1993. The more recent Casamitjana case confirmed that vegans can be protected under British equality law, but what vegans are not typically aware of, is that the existing human rights framework is intrinsically related to the assessment of equality cases concerning protection for non-religious belief, including the legal test applied. Without the existing human rights framework vegans may never have achieved recognition under British equality law.

The consultation referred to by Sean McHale above can be found here but the language and content is not likely to appeal to, or engage lay readers. The implications of the proposals, however, should not be underestimated by vegans. The reform proposals do not recognise the widespread recommendation for human rights education and further reduce our access to our fundamental human rights. If there is an overriding message to share with vegans it must surely be that our right to live according to our conscience is recognised under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and by the European Court of Human Rights as a non-trivial matter. This right is given effect in the Human rights Act 1998 and section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 prohibits public bodies from acting in a way that contravenes our rights. The Vegan Society has previously relied on, and made full use of the existing human rights framework, and will robustly engage with the government regarding the proposed reforms.

Sean McHale, is an employment law solicitor at Legal Studio
Dr Jeanette Rowley is The Vegan Society’s Rights and Advocacy Manager

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