Professor Anne Peters has spent the last several years leading the fight for a new type of international law focusing on the treatment of animals.

The European Society for International Law recently honored a book co-edited by Professor Anne Peters.
The European Society for International Law recently honored a book co-edited by Professor Anne Peters.

Her efforts in this new discipline of global animal law are gaining recognition—most recently from the European Society for International Law, which awarded its Collaborative Book Prize to Animals in the International Law of Armed Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2022). Peters co-edited the book—which argues that animal welfare should be considered during wartime—with Jérôme de Hemptinne of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and Robert Kolb of the Université de Génève. 

“I was particularly pleased that the book won this prize because it gives credit to the topic and helps it be taken seriously as a piece of scholarship,” Peters said. “It’s an important prize in international law, so it’s a really nice recognition.”

The new book expands on Peters’s earlier work, the groundbreaking Animals in International Law (Brill, 2021), which first made the case that treatment of animals—at both an individual and species level—must be addressed on a global scale. It covers subjects including whaling and other conservation treaties, the European Union’s animal protection rules, and the effects of international trade law on animal welfare.

Peters, an L. Bates Lea Global Professor of Law, is also director at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany, and is a professor at the University of Heidelberg, Free University of Berlin, and the University of Basel in Switzerland. She recently answered five questions about global animal law:

1. How did you develop the concept of global animal law?

I’m an international scholar, so I work on issues like war and peace and international organizations, human rights, and so on. But for several years, I’ve also been working on animal law, and I approached it from my international law background. Generally speaking, in international treaty law, there is almost no attention to animals and specifically not to the welfare of individual animals. There’s a little bit about species conservation, but nothing about preventing suffering of individual animals. I saw that as a clear gap. 

In 2010, I was dean of research at Basel Law School. Basel has a big pharmaceutical industry, which sponsors a lot at the university. The president of the university encouraged the law school to do something with life sciences, so I set up a doctoral program on law and animals. It was surely not what the pharmaceutical industry had expected, but it was a broad umbrella under which everybody could contribute. 

The Hague Academy of International Law in the Netherlands invited me to teach a class in 2019. You are invited years in advance, and it’s considered an honor. I suggested that I do something with animals in international law, and they agreed. That was pretty revolutionary for an old-fashioned institution. I gave that class a lot of preparation, and my book Animals in International Law came out of it.

2. How has the concept grown since then?

This latest book, which won the prize, is the second book on the subject. A younger researcher, Jérôme de Hemptinne, saw my work and approached me. He said he wanted to do something about animals in war because he had been working at an international tribunal about war crimes.

In war there is so much human suffering, animals are simply not on the first level of attention. Of course, this is totally normal. However, I think it’s bad that they have been completely out of sight. So we put it on the agenda. As one example of the book’s impact, the International Review of the Red Cross asked us to write an article summarizing the main findings of the book, which we happily did.

Now I’m working on a third book, an Oxford handbook on global animal law. It will be edited together with a postdoctoral student at the Max Planck Institute, Saskia Stucki— herself an expert on animal rights—and a colleague from Harvard Law School, Kristen Stilt, a more comparative lawyer coming from Islamic law. Kristen became interested in all these animal matters from that perspective, and she set up a program at Harvard Law. We will publish this open access, so the e-book will be completely accessible.

3. Is there one particular issue in the field of global animal law that you really wish the general public understood better or thought about more?

Yes, agriculture and our food production system. We really have a global food industry. It’s not only about live transport of animals, it’s also animal parts, animal semen, animal embryos, and so on. And the use of animals for food involves very large numbers—like thousands of times the number of animals used for research.

This is something I really think people should know: It’s a big business. And there is basically no proper international regulation, and it easily escapes national regulation. 

Five chickens walking and eating in a chicken coop
Professor Anne Peters argues that standards for treatment of chickens and other animals should be addressed in international trade agreements or special treaties. 

For example, German researchers operate under very high standards, but it’s very easy to evade these standards by going elsewhere. Chickens have been genetically modified into two different lines, one for eggs and the other for meat. Therefore the males of the laying line are seen as “superfluous,” and they are shredded alive at the age of one or two days. This has been prohibited in Germany, so some hatcheries are moving out. There are huge factories in Lithuania, for example, where the standards are much lower. In the face of a global business, states have to harmonize. 

4. Are there efforts to address these issues?

A small international organization in Paris, the World Organization for Animal Health, was founded in 1924. Its mandate is to prevent the spread of animal diseases, and it issues standards on animal health. It has expanded its mandate to cover animal welfare. However, the standards are not binding law, just recommendations, and they are also influenced by the business perspective.

The European Union has, relatively speaking, the highest standards worldwide. They’re still abysmally low, but they’re higher than in the US, Asia, Africa, and so on. The European farmers are of course afraid that these higher standards are a competitive disadvantage. So addressing this whole issue of the food industry and regulation and the problem of global business is now my scholarly “mission.”

5. So ultimately, do we need to include animal-rights issues in international treaties? 

Definitely. Either through special treaties or in trade agreements. The basic principle of trade agreements is liberalization of trade, to be (roughly speaking) as free as possible. So national laws—requirements concerning hygiene, packaging, labor standards, environmental standards—are, from that perspective, normally a trade obstacle. Because if the US requires X and Canada wants Z, then it’s a problem for the producers. 

All these trade agreements have some exceptions for national standards that may be higher than in the other parties’ jurisdictions. Animal welfare might be a subject for higher standards, for example, if the public in the regulating state wants it. Then—under some conditions—the other parties will have to accept it.