Swiss animals are in the catbird seat. How about the kids?

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to give animals a public defender. But children are still not adequately protected.
Clara Balestra | Mar 9 2010 | comment  

Dogs look through a fence at an animal home in Kloten, Switzerland / AP On Sunday, March 7, the Swiss overwhelmingly voted against a referendum proposal to appoint a lawyer who would represent the interests of animals. Had the result been a Yes, all of the nation’s cantons would have had to appoint an animal advocate for abused animals and, if necessary, apply criminal penalties. Under the proposal, the advocate would have been independent of both the investigation authorities and the animal’s owner; he would have been defending only the interests of the animal itself.

As it happened, the electorate found this going too far. Voters apparently felt that the present laws for animal protection were sufficient to protect them against mistreatment.

In fact, Switzerland’s laws on animal protection are already quite tough by international standards. Since 2003, animals are no longer considered as “things”. Instead, they have an intermediate status between a “thing” and a “human being”. In 2008 a new 160-page law on animal protection guaranteed protections which are unheard of anywhere else.  Standards for the detention of numerous animal species are described in great detail along with a catalogue of forbidden practices. For instance, since guinea pigs and goldfish are social animals, they need to have a companion. Keeping a lone goldfish in a bowl is an offence.

The referendum was the initiative of the Swiss Animal Protection organisation. It claimed that “criminal prosecution authorities have demonstrated that they are not fully committed to opening criminal procedures and they have not taken care in gathering evidence since they can base themselves only on statements from the guilty party. This happens because in most of the cantons, wronged animals have no advocate, while the owner of the animal is permitted to enjoy all the rights of an accused.”

Now that the passionate debates during the referendum campaign are over, I think that it is time to take a more dispassionate look at the issue of who really needs protection in Switzerland. I think that our own children are being ignored. When they are mistreated, Swiss children are left without adequate representation. Statistics show that violence happens predominantly in the family circle, which makes it difficult to detect. Numerous situations which are automatically prosecuted, such as physical or sexual abuse, therefore, never come to light. Unless they are deemed to be sufficiently mature (a condition which has existed only since 2007), young children are entitled to lodge a complaint only through a legal representative. Most of the time this is going to be their parents or other adults in their household, ie, the probable perpetrators of these acts. Thus many children are effectively unable to lodge complaints.

So if the referendum had been approved, animals in Switzerland would have enjoyed better legal defense than children in cases of abuse. Quite a paradox indeed!

However, just because a referendum about animal rights was lost does not mean that the question of children’s rights is settled. Far from it!

International human rights bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, have been requesting for years that Switzerland “establish a federal independent human rights institution in accordance with the Paris Principles … to monitor and evaluate progress in the implementation of the Convention. It should be accessible to children, empowered to receive and investigate complaints of violations of child rights in a child-sensitive manner, and address them effectively.“ 

What has happened? Almost nothing.

In July last year, the Swiss Government, in response to international and parliamentary pressure expressed its view that it was premature to establish such an institution. Instead it launched "a five-year pilot project aimed at providing cantons, municipalities and the private sector with extra support and services in the field of human rights.” One of the numerous gaps in this pilot project was that it failed to deal with the issue of receiving or addressing complaints from children.

Is it democracy itself which accounts for this paradoxical situation? The groups which enjoy the most effective protection of their rights are the ones with the most influence on decision-makers. So we face in Switzerland the bizarre situation where animal rights advocates seem to be stronger (ie, better organized, better funded, and perhaps better represented) than child advocates. Furthermore, the view of animals as full-fledged beings seems to be advancing, at a time when children are often considered exclusively as part of the family, and accordingly find it difficult to obtain protection from the state.

Is the Swiss government not duty-bound to reset its priorities without allowing itself to be influenced by mere politics?

Clara Balestra works with the Sarah Oberson Foundation, a child welfare foundation in Switzerland.

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