What was the initiative about?
Animals are not objects – this is stated in the Swiss Civil Code (ZGB Art. 641a). Nevertheless, the Swiss Animal Welfare Law grossly ignores this principle by defining the conditions under which we are allowed to use, harm and kill primates. In Basel alone, 929 invasive primate experiments were conducted between 2011 and 2020.
Had the initiative been accepted, the canton of Basel-Stadt would have been obliged to guarantee non-human primates the right to life as well as to maintain their physical and mental integrity. This would have finally allowed them in practice not to be treated as objects but as sentient individuals. The University of Basel, for example, would have only been permitted to carry out experiments on non-human primates in which their fundamental rights are respected (e.g. in the context of behavioural studies).
Private companies, such as the zoological gardens or pharmaceutical industries, would have only been indirectly affected by the new laws. According to the Federal Supreme Court, they could have, for example, introduced stricter rules for the protection of non-human primates. For enforcement, an ombudsperson created by the canton or an independent counsel may have been conceivable, as already formulated in detail by the Basel Constitutional Court.
We humans are also primates and are close relatives of over three hundred other primate species, the so-called non-human primates. They share up to 98 per cent of the genetic material with us, have a highly developed central nervous system and have brain structures similar to those of humans. Primates are very intelligent and maintain an active social life. They have an enormously high sensitivity to pain, grieve for deceased acquaintances, feel compassion towards other animals and are able to plan ahead into the future.
The non-human primates’ extraordinary abilities frequently become their undoing: because of their similarity to us humans, they are considered particularly attractive for biomedical research or are exhibited for observation and entertainment purposes. When they are no longer profitable or optimal care becomes more complicated, they can be euthanised without much problem.
Such practices are morally unjustifiable. Basic needs of non-human primates are not sufficiently protected by the Animal Welfare Act and are categorically subordinated to human interests. Therefore the initiative in Basel demanded, for the first time worldwide, the introduction of limited basic rights to life and to physical and mental integrity for non-human primates at cantonal constitutional level.