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.