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Top human rights court backs Belgian religious slaughter bans

Top human rights court backs Belgian religious slaughter bans

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Top human rights court backs Belgian religious slaughter bans

Regional bans in Belgium on the ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning don’t breach the European Convention on Human Rights, a top court in Strasbourg ruled on Tuesday.

The decision follows a legal challenge presented by several Belgian nationals and organizations representing Muslim and Jewish communities. These argued that Flemish and Walloon rules prohibiting the slaughter of conscious animals by religious rite violated their freedom of religion.

In its judgment, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found that “the protection of public morals […] could not be understood as being intended solely to protect human dignity in the sphere of interpersonal relations,” and that the ban is “proportionate to the aim pursued, namely the protection of animal welfare as an element of ‘public morals.’”

The bans, imposed in the two regions several years ago, were the result of a long push by animal welfare activists. But they also raised fears among Muslim and Jewish community groups that they were a cover for nationalist politicians to channel anti-immigrant sentiment. Belgium holds a general election in June, at the same time as elections to the European Parliament.

Ben Weyts, the Flemish minister responsible for animal welfare, said he was satisfied with the verdict: “Now the door is open for a ban on ritual slaughter not only in Brussels but in the whole of Europe,” Weyts, of the national-conservative New Flemish Alliance, told VRT television.

Though EU law establishes that animals can only be killed after stunning and following specific methods, it also provides for a derogation for ritual slaughter — as long as the killing takes place in a slaughterhouse. However, it does not prevent member states from imposing a broader obligation to stun animals.

Double jeopardy

Citing animal welfare concerns, the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in 2017 outlawed the killing of animals without prior stunning, as practised by observant Muslims and Jews who eat halal or kosher meat. French-speaking Wallonia followed in 2018.

In a similar case brought by Flemish and Walloon faith groups in 2020, the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) ruled that member countries may ban the practice of ritual slaughter in order to promote animal welfare, without infringing on the rights of religious groups.

The Strasbourg-based ECHR is an international court whose role is to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights — a foundational accord on the protection of human rights and political freedoms — on behalf of the 46 member countries of the Council of Europe. The CJEU is an EU court.

Many EU countries still allow the killing of animals without anesthesia under certain requirements, such as trained staff, veterinary oversight or with prior authorization.

In some countries, like like Sweden, Slovenia, and Denmark, stunning is compulsory before slaughter. In others, such as Austria, Latvia, and Slovakia, this must be done immediately after the incision or before the bleeding phase.

Revision overdue

The EU’s Slaughter Regulation took effect in 2013. Since then, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published several scientific opinions on the welfare of animals at slaughter, as well as criteria to assess applications for new or modified stunning methods.

The current stunning practices widely used in the EU are detrimental to the welfare of animals, according to a recent research paper by Eurogroup for Animals, an animal welfare umbrella group.

For example, most pigs are stunned with high-concentration CO2. Despite having certain advantages — such as cost and efficiency — the method also exposes the animals to pain in multiple ways, as they do not lose consciousness immediately.

The European Commission had been expected to revise rules on slaughter under a broader overhaul of animal welfare standards that was discussed last year but never saw the light of day. In the end, the executive decided only to propose revised rules to strengthen animal protection during transport.

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