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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Zurich approves simplified path to Swiss citizenship

Voters in Switzerland’s most populous canton on Sunday approved a proposal which will make it easier for foreigners to get Swiss citizenship.

Zurich approves simplified path to Swiss citizenship

The vote passed with 69.1 percent support, making it the most popular of the four initiatives put to the polls. 

Around 350,000 foreigners live in Zurich, which is roughly one quarter of the population – although the percentage is as high as 50 percent in some municipalities. 

The successful proposal called for Zurich’s naturalisation process, including the citizenship exam, to be made uniform across all 162 municipalities. 

The questions in the exam will now be centralised on a cantonal level. 

The test will include 350 questions about Swiss history, tradition, politics and culture, with a focus on Zurich. 

Anyone taking the test will be given 50 questions at random and must answer at least 30 correctly to pass. 

More information about the citizenship process in Zurich can be found at the following link. 

EXPLAINED: How Zurich wants to make naturalisation easier

What else was decided on Sunday? 

Voters in Zurich also decided to reject a proposal to lower the voting age to 16, with 64.1 percent saying ‘nein’ to the proposal. 

A proposal to provide for more parental leave – and even up gender imbalances between fathers and mothers – was also rejected. 

Finally, voters supported law changes which sought to enshrine Zurich’s climate change goals in the cantonal constitution. 

A detailed breakdown of the vote can be seen here.