Outlawing religious slaughter, conflicts with human rights and the future of halal meat in the UK.
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Tuesday February 05 2019
Belgium’s regional legislation to outlaw religious slaughter recently came into force on the 1st of January 2019. At a federal level, religious slaughter is not prohibited, but two of three regions within Belgium issued decrees mid-2017 requiring animal stunning to be practised, regardless of religious rulings on its impermissibility.
Before considering the implications of this on the rights to freedom of religion, it’s important to understand what Halal slaughter entails. The Department for Halal Certification EU states “Halal slaughter is one of the more humane methods available… and the only method acceptable for Muslim consumers.’’ The method for slaughtering requires the animal to be healthy and well looked after, with the slaughter being performed by a Muslim after the invocation of ‘In the name of Allah; Allah is the Greatest’. The animal’s throat is cut by a sharp knife and the blood is drained. Stunning of the animal is disliked (but accepted when certain conditions are met). Jewish methods, however, cannot involve pre-stunning regardless of any prior conditions.
Within the UK context, an identifiable problem of arguments proposing such a ban is the inherent breach of religious rights as protected under the Human Rights Act, 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, there are concerns as to the extent to which suggested and actual bans are the result of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and indicative of political agendas, rather than animal rights concerns. This is substantiated by the fact that other practices such as hunting (with a permit) are legal.
Herein also lies the hypocrisy that, in answering concerns of animal rights, only religious activities have been targeted, instead of time and resources being used to actively ensure the advancement of animal rights within the industrialised meat industry without subjecting minorities to restrictive rules (e.g. ensuring their health and treatment are humane, or regulating religious slaughter to ensure it meets religious groups standards – i.e. Islamically the animal must be healthy and free from suffering / must not be killed before other animals etc.). One conflict in this area is the argument that stunning can also greatly harm the animal, particularly if stunning is carried out incorrectly. Animal Aid’s 2009 report entitled: “The human slaughter myth”, highlighted significant problems associated with electrical stunning and captive bolt stunning. The report noted: “animals ran, hid, slipped and fell. Under such chaotic circumstances, the correct placement of electrodes on the heads of the animals – and maintaining the connection for the required duration – is problematic at best”.
Joos Roets argues that steps can be taken to protect animals without infringing the right to freedom of religion. Joos calls on the Polish example which saw the country outlaw kosher and halal meat, later being overturned by the High Court after it was shown that religious communities have a right to conserve and implement their fundamental rights to freedom of religion.
The rights and freedoms of minorities should be safeguarded in democratic societies, yet this ban says anything but.
As a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Belgium is required under Article 9 to allow citizens to ‘manifest [their] religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance’. This is subject to legal limitations which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, public order, health/morals, and for the protection of others’ rights and freedoms. The ban, therefore, infringes upon the rights of Muslims and Jewish citizens in practising their religion – there is no public safety issue, no health issues caused by the meat, and no infringement of any other rights to persons (the ECHR does not cover animal rights). In relation to this, a case has been taken before the courts to consider the legality of the ban. Arguments made bring to light the fact that not only did the ban infringe on freedom of religion, but also restrains professions, and fails to consider those who kill animals in cruel ways (not under religious grounds) who are left unregulated.
If the case against the Belgian government is successful, practices and professions will be saved. In 2017 a three-judge panel wrote that passing of such bans would ‘contradict basic human rights laws and religious rights’, so the prospects of a win look promising. However, if the case reaches the European Court of Human Rights, then its judgement will affect not only Belgium citizens, but all those who are signatories to the ECHR. This would mean that those European signatory states who have currently outlawed the practice (e.g. Sweden and the Netherlands) will be infringing the established rights of religious minorities if the court finds in favour of religious groups. The opposite, however, could see a move by other European countries in outlawing the practice – whether it be for animal rights protection or to forward an Anti-Semitic / Islamophobic agenda.
Another signatory to the ECHR (although its status may be terminated post-Brexit) is the UK. This banning (and previous trends in banning halal slaughter emerging within Europe) could have a significant impact on the UK if this legislative move in Belgium is accepted by the European Court on Human Rights. Pre-stunning in the UK was made compulsory in 1933, but this held religious rituals as an exception (Ansari 2003). Currently, therefore, Muslims (and Jews) have the freedom to practice religious slaughter as they require. The implications of this being outlawed here, however, could result in creating a greater gap and conflict between religious and secular values. Given the implementation of agencies such as PREVENT, and the resulted growth in racial abuse post the Brexit referendum, this could further the perceived agenda against Muslims and minorities, further alienating the community. However, in the short term, it is highly unlikely that consideration will be given to the meat regulation in the UK context – what with the current conditions of Brexit, as well as the post-Brexit strategizing.
Moves should be made by countries (and religious authorities) to ensure that animals live a better quality of life and are healthy before being killed for meat. Too much emphasis is on slaughter methods, and disputes about religious-slaughter are insignificant if the preconditions of holistic animal welfare are not met. Outlawing only certain practices without adequate evidence is not only discriminatory and an infringement upon the rights of religious citizens in practising their religion, but also does little to truly advance animal welfare.