The Finnish Proposal on Fundamental Animal Rights

By Birgitta Wahlberg 

The History To Be Told 

The more I have studied animal welfare legislation over the years and visited different places where animals are used, kept, transported, or killed, the more difficult and disturbing it has been to see how we legally treat animals. The times that I have felt ashamed and been mentally in pain in front of the animals, is countless. It has been embarrassing and annoying to note how badly the law is protecting our common fellows, albeit the wordings used in the legislation is of the opposite. In addition to what we are causing the animals, the link to the climate crisis, biodiversity losses, pandemics, zoonosis, and public health issues in general, makes it very clear that how we treat animals, and thereby ourselves and coming generations, is not acceptable. 

In 2015, Steven Wise was invited to Stockholm as a guest by an animal rights NGO I was working for at the moment. I had talked with him at conferences a couple of times during the years and been inspired by the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project. However, in Finland, developments by case law would not be the way to go and I was struggling with my own thoughts considering constitutional animal rights. After a week of talking, talking and talking I was encouraged enough to reach out to colleagues asking their interest to draft a proposal of fundamental animal rights.  

To make the story short, during 2016–2017 the Finnish team wrote a proposal on a constitutional amendment on the fundamental rights of animals, which today consists of five main sections: (1) Protection of Animals, (2) Safeguarding Fundamental Animal Rights, (3) Fundamental Rights of Wild Animals, (4) Fundamental Rights of Animals Dependent on Human Care, and (5) Prohibition of Animal Breeding. In detail here.

The aim was to 1) define what the recognition of sentience of animals in the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union Art. 13 means in Finland, 2) to make concrete what fundamental rights of animals on the constitutional level would mean, and 3) to lay down the Principle of Precaution, the Principle of Necessity, and the Principle of Proportionality in the context of animal rights. 

The team consisted of Visa AJ Kurki, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Helsinki, Tarja Koskela, LL.D., university lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, Susanna Pirilä, LL.M. from the University of Helsinki, Albert Jäntti, law student at the University of Helsinki, Roope Kanninen, law student at the University of Lapland, and me. 

The first draft of the amendment was sent to colleagues around the world for comments. After revising the content, the non-profit organization Finnish Animal Rights Law Society was established on Valentine’s Day 2018.  Today, the membership of the organization comprises over one hundred legal scholars and lawyers, and it is also supported by many private people in Finland. 

The Bill on Fundamental Animal Rights and the Citizen’s Initiative 

In November 2022 Member of Finnish Parliament Mai Kivelä (Left Alliance) filed a legislative motion (LA 71/2022, in Finnish ) to include fundamental animal rights in the Constitution of Finland (731/1999). The content in the motion was the proposal made by the Finnish legal scholars. However, the motion lapsed because of the parliamentary elections in April 2023. In accordance with the Finnish Constitution Section 49 unfinished matters in one parliamentary term does not continue in a new term if parliamentary elections have been held in the meantime. Therefore, in February 2023, the Finnish Animal Rights Law Society started a Citizens’ Initiative (CI) in a form of a bill. Meaning that the proposed legal text in the CI was the proposal on a constitutional amendment on the fundamental rights of animals. The required minimum of 50,000 signatures was collected within the required maximum period of six months (52,742 signatures in total).  

At the time of writing this blog, the CI is at the Population Register Centre for checking of names. After the confirmation from the Centre, a spokesperson for the CI can submit the initiative to the Parliament. The Parliament has an obligation to consider the initiative, but it is up to the Parliament whether it approves it or not. The Parliament can also make changes to the content. If the initiative is rejected by Parliament, a new initiative concerning the same matter can be set in motion. 

The consideration in the Parliament begins with a preliminary debate in plenary session. At the end of the debate, the Parliament refers the matter to a committee; in this case most probably to the Constitutional Committee. During the consideration in the Committee, spokespersons for the initiative must be given an opportunity to be heard. The Committee may also hear other experts and ministries.  

The Committee can decide not to support the initiative, or prepare its report for the plenary session. Once the relevant report of the Committee preparing the matter has been issued, a legislative proposal shall in accordance with the Finnish Constitution Sections 72 and 73 be considered in two readings in a plenary session of the Parliament. In the first reading, the report of the Committee is presented and debated, and a decision on the contents made. Then, in the second reading, the proposal is left in abeyance, by a majority of the votes cast, until the first parliamentary session following parliamentary elections. After the election, the proposal shall be adopted without material alterations in one reading in a plenary session by a decision supported by at least two thirds of the votes cast. If not, the initiative has lapsed. 

This means that fundamental animal rights might be amended to the Constitution of Finland earliest in 2028. 

The Future 

What the future holds for the animals in Finland is to be seen, but I am convinced that eventually the fundamental rights of animals are recognised in the Constitution. Likewise, I am convinced that such a recognition will also have a positive impact on animals’ lives and laws elsewhere. Constitutional developments will be the next meaningful normative responses against the oppression of the vulnerable group of sentient beings we are currently treating so badly. The words of Steven Wise echoes in my mind; “Keep the focus and do not waste your time on secondary issues.” Together we can change the world! 






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *