Why animal rights matter

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Why animal rights matter


The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

Last semester I gave a class of more than 100 students the constitutional revision proposed by President Moon Jae-in and told them to review it. I can hardly believe it has been less than three months since the revision was proposed, as the country has been so busy with the reconciliatory mood with North Korea and the local election in June. But the students were very eager to do the project.

Students began with various topics and government forms and wrote about the issues discussed in the media, including decentralization, basic rights, the public concept of land and voting age. However, what caught my attention was a paper by one student on animal rights. I did not even realize that it was included in the constitutional revision among other “more important” issues, and I thought that it was a very trivial yet radical topic.

Clause 3, Article 37 of the proposed constitutional revision states, “The country needs to implement policies for animal protection.” The proposed revision was scrapped before the National Assembly voted and is now out of the spotlight, but I would like to discuss this “trivial” animal protection clause that was included for some unknown reason, or because it is included in the German or Swiss constitution, as it would help us continue the discussion of what Korea’s constitution should be.

The student, who is a pet owner, admitted that the animal protection clause would create controversy, probably with more critics than supporters. Some may simply argue that people come first, and we cannot afford to worry about animals when civil rights are not fully protected. Others would claim that animals are personal property and protecting them under the Constitution would be ridiculous. We can also predict arguments like why protect animal rights, not plant rights, or whether eating steak violates animal rights. The only reason that we might avoid the controversy was that not many people cared about this trivial and unrealistic issue.

But sometimes the Constitution needs to shed light on the path that reality doesn’t take. The U.S. Constitution was the first legal document in the world to include the idea of inalienable rights, but at the time, it was far from the reality as one seventh of the population were slaves and there was no concept of women’s suffrage. However, it is the true progress of human civilization that human rights are universally enjoyed by all, not just white adult males, but women, minorities, children and every unnamed individual around the world. The beginning was the moment that the U.S. Constitution stipulated natural and universal rights.


Animal protection activists stage a performance to stop butchering dogs for meat consumption in Gwanghwamun Square, central Seoul on Sunday. [YONHAP]

As the rights of citizens are expanded to universal rights of all people, it may be natural to expand the concept to respect for animals and all life. Whether it is included in the Constitution or not, we all know that animal tests, dog farms and cruelty on cats won’t stop right away. But it is at least certain that those who sympathize with a cat’s pain can also sympathize with the pain of their neighbors and all individuals. In that sense, the animal protection clause in the constitution is not just about animals but actually defines the boundary of pain that we can sympathize with as a community.

It is pathetic that all I can discuss as a member of the older generation is still within the boundary of people. I thought Korea was free from the refugee issues sweeping the world, but then 500 Yemeni asylum seekers landed on Jeju Island. It took only five days for 220,000 people to sign a petition not to accept asylum applications. The comments on related articles show the pain that many Koreans were willing to endure and sympathize with would be not much more than a splinter under the fingernail.

I have no intention to reproach, criticize or be judgmental about it. But I hope that the new Constitution for Korea will contain idealistic elements, even if they are unrealistic.

The Constitution should reflect reality but should be able to present a better future for the community. Now may be the time to begin deciding what that future looks like.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 22, Page 31
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