The referendum proposal was launched by the animal rights think tank Sentience Politics which fights against discrimination on the basis of species.
The aim of the initiative is to guarantee the fundamental rights to life and to mental and physical integrity for non-human primates – a group that include animals such as chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos.
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The think tank has said its proposal could prevent the deaths of hundreds of primates in Basel, where Switzerland’s powerful pharmaceutical industry is based.
Launching its initiative in 2016, Sentience Politics said non-human primates are highly intelligent, can make plans and remember events, and are capable of suffering and feeling empathy.
The organization went on to collect the 3,000 signatures necessary to trigger a referendum in the liberal canton of Basel-Stadt.
However, the cantonal government declared the planned ballot invalid on January 10th, arguing it contravened provisions in the Swiss constitution on animal protection.
But a cantonal appeals court has now overturned the cantonal government’s decision, meaning the vote can go ahead.
There is a catch though – and one that could seriously limit the practical impact of the vote.
In its ruling, the appeals court noted that animal protection legislation is a federal matter in Switzerland and that while the Swiss federal constitution has “one-of-a-kind” provisions addressing the dignity of animals, these fall short of guaranteeing animals’ right to life.
The end result is that Basel-Stadt does not have the power to impose stricter animal protection measures on private entities like pharmaceutical companies and zoos than is currently allowed for in the constitution.
But the court said the vote on primate rights could still go ahead because there was nothing to prevent the canton from introducing stronger animal protection rules in its own institutions.
What this means is that if the referendum does go ahead, and it is backed by voters, the canton would only be able to apply it in cantonal institutions like hospitals and universities.
This is despite statements from Sentience Politics that the referendum would apply to zoos and pharmaceutical firms.
Current state of primate research in Basel
The University of Basel has never run experiments involving primates, although it could, in theory, choose to do so at any time.
Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giant Novartis stopped experiments with primates in 2016 and Roche was reportedly planning to do so by the end of 2018.
But the limited potential impact of the upcoming referendum is not necessarily all bad news for Sentience Politics.
The organization has previously argued the Basel vote is also an awareness-raising exercise which will trigger broader debate and could lead to other similar initiatives in other regions in future.
The decision by the cantonal appeals court can now be appealed in the Federal Supreme Court within 30 days.