Brussels, Belgium. During Eid al-Adha, many Muslim families sacrifice a sheep and share the meat with the poor. (Photo by Sander de Wilde/Corbis via Getty Images)


European Court of Human Rights upholds ban on ritual animal-slaughter


In a landmark case, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled that a ban on the ritual slaughter of unanaesthetised animals does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Several Islamic and Jewish representatives and NGOs in Belgium took a case to Strasbourg after the Flemish and Walloon Governments banned ritual slaughter. The ban was approved by the Belgian Constitutional Court and was then brought to the European Court of Human Rights.

The complainants argued before the court that their “right to freedom of religion had been violated” on account of the prohobition.

They argued that it would be hard, if not impossible, for Jewish and Muslim believers to slaughter animals in accordance with their religious beliefs, and thus to obtain meat they are permitted to eat.

The court did not support their reasoning and the seven judges, including one from Turkey, voted unanimously to uphold the ban.

They noted that it was the first time the court had to decide on the possibility of tying the preservation of animal welfare to one of the objectives listed in Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Article 9.

Article 9 handles freedom of thought, conscience and religion, in this case, together with Article 14, the prohibition of discrimination.

The court recognised that the protection of public morals, as per Article 9, extended to the wellbeing of animals, not just human dignity.

It emphasised the evolving nature of the concept of “morals” and agreed with the Court of Justice of the European Union and the Belgian Constitutional Court that contemporary societies increasingly value animal welfare as an ethical concern.

Consequently, the court deemed the protection of animal welfare a legitimate aim under Article 9, allowing for the examination of restrictions on religious freedom when it intersects with animal wellbeing.

Strasbourg acknowledged Flanders and Wallonia’s “thorough commitment” to parliamentary scrutiny, involving extensive consultations with representatives from diverse religious groups, veterinarians and animal-protection associations.

It said they demonstrated considerable efforts to effectively reconcile the goals of promoting animal welfare and respecting freedom of religion.

The court observed that both decrees were grounded in a scientific consensus endorsing animal stunning as the most effective method for reducing suffering prior to slaughter. It found no compelling reason to challenge this conclusion.

It also said that the regional Governments sought a proportionate alternative to mandatory prior stunning. The decrees allowed “reversible stunning” for animals to be slaughtered according to religious rites. After scientific studies and consultations, no less radical measures were deemed sufficient to minimise unnecessary harm to animals during slaughter.

Regarding the complaint about obtaining meat in line with their religious beliefs, judges said the Belgian regions did not forbid consumption of animal products from other countries that did not enforce prior stunning. The applicants failed to demonstrate increased difficulty in accessing such meat, they said.

Three complaints regarding alleged discrimination were also rejected.

“The decision is extremely disappointing,” Mehmet Üstün, chairman of the Muslim Executive said following the court’s rulings.

He called it a “decision contrary to freedom of religion and religious freedom”.

Üstün added that he expected Brussels now to follow the rest of Belgium and also ban ritual slaughter but said his group would lobby their cause further.

According to Flemish animal-welfare minister Ben Weyts (N-VA), the court’s ruling means “the door is now open for a ban on unanaesthetised slaughter not only in Brussels but in the whole of Europe”.

“We are reaching out to the religious communities that challenged the ban. Let us now finally turn this page and fight together for more animal welfare from now on.”

In a reaction to Brussels Signal, British Conservative parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg said, “In my view, these matters are better decided by nation states on a democratic basis rather than by a court that through its self-determined “living instrument” doctrine. It is exceeding the powers given to it by its members.”