If the Nonhuman Rights Project wins the lawsuits they are putting forward this week, four New York chimpanzees will be given "legal person" status. If these chimpanzees are recognised as persons under the law, this will confer on them the “fundamental right of bodily freedom” and so they will be released into a sanctuary. The Nonhuman Rights Project is arguing that because of chimpanzee’s high cognitive abilities they should be recognised as autonomous human beings, and so the principle of habeas corpus should be applied to them.
It will be an interesting case to watch – and it would be great to see greater legal protection for apes. The US still carries out medical tests on chimpanzees, which is now banned in the UK as well as several other countries, although it has significantly reduced the numbers of chimps in laboratories earlier this year, transferring around 300 to animal sanctuaries.
The case couldn’t help remind me that plenty of human beings are being unlawfully detained without trial in the US too, violating the fundamental legal principle of habeas corpus. Under US military law, terrorism suspects can be detained indefinitely without charge. Over 160 detainees are still being held in Guantanamo, some of whom have been there for over a decade, and of these only 6 have been formally charged of any crime. Around 600 of the 779 detainees held in Guantanamo since 2001 were released without charges, and nine have died in custody.
I’m not anti granting chimpanzees "legal person" status, I’d just like terrorism suspects to be treated as ‘legal persons’ too.