top of page
  • Writer's pictureClaudia Hirtenfelder

Animal Rights and International Relations

The need for animals to have rights is recognized in an operative clause from the Universal Declaration Rights of Mother Earth which states that “Just as human beings have human rights, all other beings also have rights….” For Andrea Schapper, the most recent guest on the Animal Turn, there is a strong connection between environmental challenges and human rights. To meet the needs of both requires radical thought and that also entails thinking about international politics and the ways in which rights are afforded to – or could be afforded to – animals.

Despite these interconnections, international organizations usually only consider animals under the banner of welfare. For Andrea, and many others featured in Season 6 (including Gary Francione, Steve Cooke, Angie Pepper, Cory Lee Wrenn, Krithika Srinivasan, and Dinesh Wadiwel) welfare is simply not radical enough to transform humans’ problematic relations with nature and animals. Not only does welfare language and practice lack the transformative potential of rights but it can also reinforce existing paradigms premised on using animals.

When thinking about international relations and its architecture there are many scales at which one can think through how animals, the environment, and their rights might be represented. Regional organizations, such as the European Union or the African Union, offer potential for thinking through how animal rights might be politically developed, especially when one considers how animals move across national borders. However, the main purpose of these regional blocs is often economic integration which might limit the extent to which they discuss political – and radical – ideas.

The United Nations and their various organizations are promising because they stretch beyond economic considerations. Despite this, there is no organization at the UN level that is explicitly designed to protect animal welfare, health, or rights. Nonetheless, animals are featured in some negotiations in the UN. For example, animals are making an appearance in discussions about One Health in talks at the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization. Animals’ appearance in these discussions remain, however, decidedly instrumental often lacking the radical vision and rhetoric that comes with rights.  

Take for example the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in which animals are only included in Goal 14 (“Life Below Water”) and Goal 15 (“Life on Land”). Goals that are meant to protect biodiversity (including Goals 14 and 15) are often neglected in favour of those that work toward economic development.

This privileging of economic and anthropocentric ideals negatively impacts animals, reproduces inequalities, and thwarts the transformative change needed to address large scale issues such as climate change. For example, if you look at some renewable energy projects – like Hydro resources and green economy strategies – they are framed as having large economic benefits. Many large-scale renewable projects can, however, hamper local economies, also disrupting established practices and ecologies.  

The Endangered Species Coalition has outlined how renewable energy can have adverse impacts on biodiversity including contributions to habitat loss, wildlife destruction, land damage, and displacement. Solar farms have, for example, transformed previously isolated environments with photovoltaic panels disrupting niche environments and fragmenting previously uninterrupted areas.

While rights for animals it still viewed as too radical for many, rights of nature are starting to generate some support. There is precedent for how the rights of nature could be taken more seriously and Latin America is leading the way. Rights of Nature is included in the constitution of countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador and has been used as an instrument to fight against development projects that might have adverse environmental and social impacts. In Panama these rights of nature are being used to protect animals, such as leatherback turtles. This is one of the few laws that explicitly notes another animal, turtles, as having rights to clean environments. Legal instruments such as these can be extremely productive, helping to protect animals, raise awareness, and facilitate changes in human behaviour.

That said, there is still a great deal of work to be done to recognizing the rights of animals internationally.  The failure of international politics and relations to meaningfully include animals, has prompted Andrea makes four suggestions on how animal rights can be strengthened in the UN and the UN Sustainability Agenda. These are discussed in great detail in a paper she authored together with Cebuan Bliss titled Transforming our world? Strengthening animal rights and animal welfare at the United Nations. There four suggestions are briefly listed below:  


  1. Create a new UN organization which is a forum and an actor for animal protection and rights.

  2. Create a new Sustainable Development Goal – Goal 18. This builds on a suggestion made by Ingrid J. Visseren-Hamakers, The 18th Sustainable Development Goal.

  3. Strengthen animal rights in rights of nature legislation and practice.

  4. Develop Procedural Rights for Animals.


Working out the logistics of how animals can be included in political systems requires thinking across scales, this includes local and national policies but also international regulations. This is particularly important when international policies and goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals form part of national agendas and shape imaginaries regarding what kinds of futures we are hoping for.


Andrea Schapper is a Professor in International Politics at the University of Stirling. In September and October 2022, she was a Guest Scholar at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law in Lund, Sweden. She also held a Senior Fellowship at the Berlin-Potsdam Research Group 'The International Rule of Law - Rise or Decline' in October 2020 and was Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany for several months in 2016 and 2017. Prior to joining the University of Stirling in 2015, she was a Lecturer in International Relations at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany (2012-2015). Her PhD is from the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences (Universität Bremen, 2011) and she has previously studied at Cornell University (USA), Leibniz Universität Hannover (Germany) and the United Nations Office at Geneva (United Nations Graduate Study Program, Switzerland). Andrea has worked for international organizations, like the International Labour Organization (ILO in Geneva, Switzerland), and non-governmental organizations, such as the National Domestic Workers' Movement (India) or the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (Zambia). She has conducted field research in Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia and Zambia. Andrea’s research focuses on environmental justice and on new developments at the intersection of human rights and the environment, including new forms of institutional interactions and actor constellations fostering links between the two policy fields. She also has a strong interest in rights of nature and animal rights. Connect with Andrea via email (


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page