An investigation by Animals Australia into cattle processing in Indonesian slaughterhouses was aired on Australian television last year, with the subsequent public outcry prompting the government to ban all live cattle exports for six months. This was because the handling of cows in Indonesia (and other countries where undercover filming was carried out) offended many viewers’ ideas of humane treatment as well as Australia’s own animal welfare legislation, even though this legislation did not apply in Indonesia. Many Australians wanted to distance themselves from the footage they had seen.
The debate over good welfare standards hinged on whether or not the animals were stunned before having their throats slit. Many slaughterhouses in Indonesia slaughter according to halal requirements, and the ban was interpreted as stepping on that country’s capacity to allow its citizens the right to observe their religion (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). Further, Indonesia does not have an animal welfare framework that approaches that of Australia. In order to uphold the welfare of the animals involved and to satisfy the concerns of a large portion of its public, the Australian government appeared to stipulate to another nation state what its animal welfare legislation should be.
The ban appeased some but had a negative impact on others. The people directly affected were those that work in the industry: cattle farmers and their employees took a hit to their business activity and income, affecting their right to work and to be protected against unemployment (Article 23 of the UDHR). This had a disproportionate impact on the people living in remote Australia, areas already disadvantaged by virtue of their isolation.
The ban was lifted a month later and exports resumed in August, with the industry body Meat and Livestock Australia putting forward money and a plan to ensure that Australian cattle in Indonesian slaughterhouses were handled humanely. These extra measures, such as having welfare inspectors onsite when Australian cattle were being processed, were to be enforced by the importers and exporters. Presumably, when it was the turn of non-Australian cattle to be processed, these welfare inspectors made their exits. This attempt to improve the last few minutes of selected animals’ lives comes across as a form of cultural superiority: our cows deserve better treatment than your cows do. The next step is surely a cow embassy where Australian cows can show their passports, indicating place of birth and the rights afforded to them as denizens of the Australian state. Cows that have emigrated to Indonesia on work visas can appeal to their embassy if they don’t receive the treatment they are entitled to.
I don’t wish to mock rights language or the work done by animal advocates, who know better than most that the rights which are particular to humans do not make any sense when applied to animals. But this is a good illustration of the implications of the human right to own property (Article 17 of the UDHR), which is arguably the biggest obstacle to legislation that protects an animal’s interest in its own life. Once you’ve sold your property, the buyer can do with it whatever they like. If you are unhappy with the buyer’s behaviour, you withdraw your business and find another buyer whose standards are agreeable to you.
There is now an independent animal welfare lobby in Australia, that is, not overseen by the industry, which is undoubtedly a win for animal advocates (hopefully animals too). And you could say that the Australian public in general is currently open to being shown the reality of animal farming everywhere, even at home. But once the ban was lifted, the animals were put back onto ships to meet the same fate as their predecessors. What about the animals who were not put on boats, who were detained in stockyards while the ban was in place? Were they sent to Australian slaughterhouses, shipped to other countries, or simply killed as waste stock? Mass culling was threatened if the ban were not lifted soon enough. A contingency fund had to be put in place to secure the welfare of the cattle affected by the suspension. Ultimately the ban had the same result as if there were no ban: the animals concerned were killed, humanely or not.
Attaching humane concerns to exported cattle once they are in the destination country, after the journey itself has no doubt compromised animal welfare standards, pushes a particular brand of neocolonialism, where the concept of humanity is inferred as western civilisation – that there is a proper way to be humane and, therefore, human. Kind of embarrassing for Australia when the way it treats its farmed chickens and pigs lags behind the European Union. Nevermind that slaughterhouses in Australia also hold dubious claims to high welfare standards (the latest expose only weeks ago). And nevermind the debates within Australia and around the world about what constitutes humane treatment; for some people this means not killing at all.
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