This Sunday, December 10th, is an important opportunity to join people from all over the world in expressing support for both human rights and animal rights.
The date was first meant to commemorate the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which established the importance of respect for the freedom, equality, and dignity of each individual, regardless of “race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.”
Several years ago, International Animal Rights Day was launched on the same date, in part to emphasize that principles like respect for freedom, dignity, and justice must be inclusive – and extended to other species – if they are to be taken seriously.
I’ve been thinking about these connections since I was a kid. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma, where my parents also taught me about human rights violations around the world. They participated in nonviolent civil discourse and my father’s extended family and friends had been detained and tortured in Iran, as a result of religious persecution. My parents thought it was important for my brother, sister, and me to be aware of the difficulties many people face, so they shared books and engaged in dialogue with us about these issues from the time we were young. It was then that I decided to be a doctor, to help prevent and alleviate the suffering in the world. But, as a child, I wondered why the same rules didn’t apply to people and animals. I saw how rich animals’ lives could be, and how they could suffer.
Now, as a human rights physician, I realize I was on the right track. Throughout the course of my career, I’ve learned how violence against people and animals is linked. Many times, I have become frustrated with shortsighted solutions that wrongly permit the suffering of one individual or group to promote the needs or desires of another. And, as I’ve written before, I’ve also come to understand how the solutions to violence against people and animals are similarly linked.
Principles like freedom, fairness, love, and tolerance are basic needs that can fuel resilience in people and animals. These values are timeless, perhaps because they reflect our biology. Revered in ancient and modern philosophy and religious texts, from the East to the West, they are transmitted across generations. They form the foundation for liberal democracies across the globe and the ever-evolving idea of America. Gradually we are beginning to understand how these principles also form the basis for nonhuman societies – for example, how animals perceive and practice justice.
When we apply these principles universally – from trade agreements to international legal frameworks to market choices – they also become powerful norms and antidotes to violence. Extending sovereignty to elephants, for example – and protecting them from poaching and captivity – also protects girls and women from sexual violence. Allowing gorillas to live up to who they were born to be helps us see each child for all they can be. Spreading empathy to a lamb can protect communities from violent human crimes. When we protect the most vulnerable, everyone benefits.
Imagine how much further we would be on issues like sexual harassment and assault, or protecting children from abuse, if values like respect for bodily sovereignty and justice were so deeply embedded in our society that we extended them to animals. After all, how we treat animals – and other vulnerable individuals – is in many ways a marker for whether we will choose to intervene when the most pervasive forms of inequity are before us.
Though many of the problems we face today are complex, it’s time to start addressing their root causes. In doing so, let’s see how far principles like liberty and justice can take us.
Here’s to a good Human Rights Day and Animal Rights Day – and beyond – for all.