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SWISS REFERENDUM

Swiss referendum: Will Basel voters give primates human rights?

A northern Swiss region will vote Sunday on whether non-human primates should enjoy some of the same basic fundamental rights as their human cousins.

Basel will vote on granting a range of fundamental rights to primates, some akin to human rights. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Basel will vote on granting a range of fundamental rights to primates, some akin to human rights. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

The vote in the Basel-City canton, which is home to the city of the same name and to one of Europe’s best-known zoos, is being keenly followed by animal rights activists.

The vote is one in a long line of referenda considering animal rights in Switzerland. 

A further nationwide vote on animal testing will take place on Sunday, while Switzerland’s first ever vote concerned animal welfare. 

EXPLAINED: What was on the ballot in Switzerland’s first ever referendum?

Giving primates ‘integrity’

Triggered by the campaign group Sentience under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, the regional vote concerns whether to give primates the right to life and the right to “mental and physical integrity”.

“This will mark the first time worldwide that people can vote on fundamental rights for non-human animals,” the group claims.

Basel-based Sentience says primates are highly intelligent and maintain an active social life, and feel pain, grief and compassion.

However, they cannot defend themselves against interventions in their lives — so humans need to take responsibility and grant them rights, says Sentience.

The group says some 150 primates live in the canton, which borders France and Germany. 

EXPLAINED: What is Switzerland’s animal testing referendum all about?

Legal challenge

In 2020, Switzerland’s Supreme Court deemed a public vote on the topic was valid, rejecting an appeal.

It found that the proposal would not extend fundamental rights to animals — but instead introduce specific rights for non-human primates.

However, it said the proposal would only bind the cantonal and municipal authorities in Switzerland’s third-biggest city, and “not directly private persons”.

The impact on private research institutions, and on Basel Zoo — in the hands of family shareholders — would therefore be limited.

And, according to the court, the local authorities and their public bodies do not have any primates. 

Establishing the law 

The vote is “a statement of intent so that primates live in better conditions,” said Pedro Pozas, the Spanish director of the Great Apes Project, an international movement which demands a set of rights.

Animal defenders say the vote is highly symbolic. Its scope could be very wide, said Steven Wise, a US lawyer specialising in animal rights.

The vote “would give certain rights to primates, which would have to be litigated out as to what rights those are”, he told AFP.

Wise said the proposal raises several questions, including who would plead a primate’s case in court if its rights were violated?

If the vote goes through, Swiss courts would meanwhile not be the first to hear such cases.

Referendum: How are the Swiss likely to vote on February 13th?

In 2017 in Argentina, a court granted a female chimpanzee the right not to be imprisoned without trial, under habeas corpus. It was the first chimpanzee in the world to benefit from this right.

Wise said the animal rights movement was trying to “break through the barrier” limiting the extent to which rights can be applied.

He compared the situation to previous battles to extend rights among humans, citing children, women or racial minorities.

Pozas said the United Nations should also make a declaration on the rights of great apes. 

Euthanasia question 

While the proposed new law would only concern primates kept by public bodies, Basel Zoo board member Olivier Pagan fears a spillover effect on their primates.

“If the initiative was adopted, the scrutiny of their well-being and safety would no longer be the responsibility of experienced biologists, veterinarians and experienced caregivers, but of a mediator… or even unqualified lawyers,” he said.

When a primate is in serious pain, it might not be possible to end its suffering, under the right to life clause.

Zoo veterinarian Fabia Wyss said: “If the initiative is adopted and if I decide to put the animal to sleep, I put myself beyond the law.”

“But by letting an animal suffer unnecessarily, I am also equally culpable.”

Member comments

  1. I say go for it, primate lives matter and their fundamental rights are no less important than humans, after all we share this planet with the animals and we should be taking care of the environment and the animals that are resident on it.

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SWISS REFERENDUM

First same-sex couples get married in Switzerland

The first same-sex couples tied the knot in Switzerland on Friday following a referendum that changed the landscape for gay rights in the country.

First same-sex couples get married in Switzerland

 Among the first to get married were Aline, 46, and Laure, 45, who have been together for 21 years and converted their civil union into marriage at the plush Palais Eynard in Geneva.

Beneath a sparkling chandelier in a mirrored salon, and with a dozen or so close friends and family in attendance, the couple exchanged touching words recalling their years together and love for each other.

Holding hands throughout the ceremony, they signed the official documents, followed by their witnesses.

“I am now very pleased to announce that you are officially married,” said the Mayor of Geneva, Marie Barbey-Chappuis, who conducted the first ceremony in person.

READ MORE: ‘Deviance and morality’: The history of the same-sex marriage movement in Switzerland

The room burst into applause as the couple exchanged a kiss.

“It was very moving. It’s a big moment and sends a very strong message to society — being free to love and be loved,” Barbey-Chappuis told AFP afterwards.

“The symbolism was particularly strong and the emotion too”.

It was high time that marriage became perfectly equal in Switzerland. “It marks a moment in the history of Switzerland and of the institution of marriage.”

Switzerland is one of the last remaining western European nations to adopt same-sex marriages. The Netherlands was the first to make the change in 2001.

The Swiss government’s plans to introduce “marriage for all” were challenged by opponents, who successfully triggered a referendum on the issue that was held last September. But 64.1 percent of voters backed the introduction of same-sex marriage in he wealthy Alpine nation.

Switzerland decriminalised homosexuality in 1942. Before Friday, same-sex  couples could only register a civil partnership. However, that status does not provide the same rights as marriage, including for obtaining citizenship and the joint adoption of children.

READ MORE: Everything that changes in Switzerland in July 2022

Same-sex couples can now marry in civil ceremonies and enjoy the same rights as other married couples.

Same-sex foreign spouses are now eligible to apply for citizenship through a simplified procedure and same-sex couples are now permitted to adopt jointly.

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