– by Shenali D. Waduge –
If the international community were to raise the issue of the lack of effective legislative protection for animals in Sri Lanka incorporating modern standards of treatment of animals, in addition to their never-ending spotlight on the country’s human rights track record, Sri Lanka’s politicians and law makers will have nowhere to turn. We will become a pariah state overnight in world councils and will be placed in the same category of ‘failed’ states that lack a moral and ethical foundation for proper governance. We must realize even now that the subject of animal welfare can no longer be sidelined without paying a heavy price particularly in respect to a country’s international image.
With over 70% of the population being Buddhist it is a national shame that our elected representatives have fallen shy of enacting the Animal Welfare Bill tabled in Parliament in 2010 as a Private Member’s Bill and which has its genesis in the Animal Welfare Bill drafted and approved by the Law Commission in 2006.
It is disgraceful and morally indefensible that our law makers have descended to this low level of indifference and neglect towards the welfare of animals. Due to our pro- crastination, we have moved very close in this respect to several Islamic nations like Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan that by deliberate choice refuse to provide legislative protection to animals. In their view, animals are there to serve the needs of man (and woman) as prescribed in their religious texts and therefore how one treats animals is none of the business of the state. To us in Sri Lanka these are unenlightened attitudes which go against the grain of Buddhist thinking and practice, but it is the sad reality of today, that it is these unenlightened views that increasingly shape both public policy and law making in this country. A far cry from the noble principles of governance prescribed in the Dasa Raja Dharma (Ten Royal Qualities) and Avihimsa (non- harm to other living beings) being one of them.
While our law makers drag their feet over this proposed new bill of law, thousands of animals both in captivity and wilderness continue to suffer and die. In turn, Sri Lanka has unnecessarily gained huge amounts of negative media coverage, tourist literature critical of treatment of animals in Sri Lanka and condemnation from animal welfare groups based locally and overseas because of our Parliament’s almost total disregard for animal welfare. The Parliament of Sri Lanka has further become conspicuous in comparison to the legislatures in several other countries by the marked absence of voices in Parliament dedicated to the noble advocacy of calling consistently for better treatment and protection of animals.
The need to enact the Animal Welfare Bill is further strengthened by an international Petition sponsored by the Dharma Voices for Animals (DVA) which was launched in the USA recently and gathering momentum the world over, calling for the immediate enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Justice excludes animal welfare from law reform initiatives
It is relevant to pose the question, what sort of legislative reform is the Ministry of Justice supposed to be undertaking when the primary legislation in Sri Lanka governing the protection and welfare of animals to this day is an antiquated statute enacted in 1907 during the British colonial era i.e. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, where the maximum punishment for a heinous crime committed on an animal is a mere Rs. 100 (less than one US Dollar)? This is hardly a deterrent to combat animal cruelty.
What explanation can the Ministry of Justice give for this wanton neglect of an important area that is deserving of law reform attention given Sri Lanka’s close association historically and culturally with care and concern for the welfare of all living creatures.
At present three countries offer specific protection in their respective states Constitutions for the protection of animals, namely India, Germany and Switzerland. The Constitution of India prohibits the slaughter of cows and declares the existence of a fundamental duty on the part of every Indian Citizen to have compassion for living creatures. The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany imposes a responsibility on the State to enact appropriate legislation to protect the natural foundation of life and animals. The Federal Constitution of Swiss Confederation recognizes animals as sentient beings and places a responsibility on the State to legislate for the protection of animals.
The Constitution of Sri Lanka
In contrast, the Constitution of Sri Lanka has failed to establish or declare animal welfare principles. This is a huge disappointment. Despite Buddhism’s clear acceptance of the sentience of animals and Arahant Mahinda’s resounding call to King Devanampiyatissa in their very first encounter at Mihintale, 2300 years ago in the following words:
““Oh! Great King, the birds of the air and the beasts have an equal right to live and move about in any part of this land as thou. The land belongs to the peoples and all other beings and thou art only the guardian of it.”
which had a dramatic impact and together with other Buddhist moral injunctions helped formulate the ethical foundations of public policy and governance strenuously followed by all 180 Buddhist kings who ruled Sri Lanka, the post – independence Governments of Sri Lanka have miserably failed to live up to the high ideals followed by the pre-colonial rulers of Sri Lanka.
The Mahavamsa (Sri Lanka’s ancient chronicle) records in great detail the noble conduct of our past rulers and extols righteousness, justice, piety and the need to strive for human perfection with love and compassion towards all, both human and non – human.
There is no need for any further delay in the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill. We must not allow the religious bigotry of a few with different, dangerous and extremist beliefs and agendas including members in the Cabinet to stand in the way of the State establishing a Dharmishta society where a Buddhist Social Order prevails like in the days of our ancient Buddhist Kings who upheld righteousness and projected themselves as role models of piety to the subjects.