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Dolphins Deserve the Rights of Non-Human Persons, Says Romanian Politician

If it passes, it could also define other species as non-human persons as well.

by Mat McDermott
Feb 7 2014, 8:20pm
Image: Carey Akin/Flickr

The latest effort to recognize that the intelligence and culture of cetaceans is so advanced that they deserve rights similar to humans comes from Romania. Remus Cernea, a member of Romanian parliament, has introduced draft legislation that would recognize dolphins as “non-human persons.”

Under the proposed law, dolphins would have the right to: life; bodily integrity and to be free from any acts of cruelty; “free movement within their own natural environment, not to be captured or held in captivity for purposes other than being offered medical assistance or being protected from impending danger;” and “to be protected in their own living natural environment, and not to be separated from the group or family he or she belongs” [sic].

Violation of these rights “shall be prosecuted with penalties that are equivalent with those stipulated in the Penal Code for violation of similar rights of human persons.” 

As defined in this proposed legislation a “non-human person” is, “any being that does not belong to the human species, yet possesses a developed intelligence, (and) the capacity to form complex social relations.” 

The legislation has the backing of high-profile campaigners. The Dolphin Project’s Laura Bridgman says, “Just as important as increasing legal protections for dolphins is shifting our commonly held views about them. Our treatment of dolphins has yet to catch up with what we know scientifically about these beings.”

“Extending the same ethical and legal protections to a branch of our mammalian ancestry that routinely shows empathy and compassion for humanity is a logical step in our own evolution as moral beings,” Louie Psihoyos, director of the documentary The Cove about the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, Japan, said in an open letter to Romanian media.

“It is clear that a dolphin’s capacities to think, feel, experience, and manipulate its environment are on par with the capabilities of a human being," Psihoyos said. "For this reason, (I) believe that dolphins should be afforded the rights of non-human persons and be protected by law.” 

This is not the first time that attempts to grant rights of non-human personhood to other animals.

In 2008, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution granting non-human rights to chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and bonobos. In 2010, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society attempted to get traction for a declaration of cetacean rights. Last year India banned keeping dolphins in captivity due to them being “highly intelligent and sensitive.”

The ban suggested, but didn’t legislate, that dolphins should be seen as non-human persons with rights. The move was preemptive, as India had no dolphins in captivity at the time, though proposals to create the first marine parks with performing dolphins had just been put forward.

Apart from the effect on dolphins that the legislation would have—if it actually passes and is enforced effectively—the wording of it opens up the door to the granting of non-human personhood to a variety of other species as well.

According to translated draft text, the law "defines a non-human person any being that does not belong to the human species, yet posses a developed intelligence, [and] the capacity to form complex social relations." With that broad wording, a solid scientific and ethical case could be made for extending these rights to, at minimum, great apes, whales, and elephants as well.