January 13th, Ramanna Nikaya Headquarters, Colombo 5
A media conference was organised by Justice for Animals, a community project under the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, to discuss the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill. The panel consisted of three key speakers; Ven Dr Omalpe Sobhitha Thero - President of the Sri Bodhiraja Foundation, Mr U. R. de Silva - President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and Mr Senaka Weeraratna - Attorney-at-Law and former consultant to the Law Commission, on Animal Welfare Legislation. The event was attended by the clergy, animal activist groups, animal lovers and the media, and discussed key problems relating to current legislation on Animal Welfare.
Our religion is to secure the rights of the voiceless
"There is no religion here. Our religion should be to secure the rights of the voiceless," said Ven. Sobhitha Thero who highlighted the pathetic situation faced by animals who share the earth equally alongside humans. "We've forgotten that animals have the right to share the world as much as we do. We seem to think that we are the owners of everything around us, including animals and natural resources. We have to acknowledge and respect the rights of all living creatures," said Ven. Sobhitha Thero. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi's saying that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. He cited many instances of Sri Lanka's pre-colonial era and how rulers at the time protected the rights of animals and promoted peaceful co-existence between humans and animals, and of the importance of influencing and putting pressure on the ruling parties to provide similar treatment for animals.
The process of enacting the bill
U. R. de Silva spoke of the role of the Bar Association in relation to initial preparation of the draft Act. Generally, the process involves drafting at the Legal Draftsman's Department followed by amendment of the Bill, based on suggestions from the Select Committee of Parliament and recommendations from the relevant Ministry, and direction by the Attorney General. After deliberations, the final Bill will be debated in the parliament and enacted. "Rather than waiting for something to happen, we must follow up and actively work on it," he said. He also informed that the full support of the Bar Association will be given to the enactment of the Animal Welfare Bill.
Current animal welfare situation
The existing law relating to cruelty to animals is as good as non-existent, and certainly not enforced, with the maximum fine for cruelty to animals being only a mere 100 rupees. Mr de Silva informed that a ten-member committee comprising the National Animal Welfare Authority, that is recommended in the Bill to be set up will comprise a lawyer, veterinarians practising both western and eastern medicine, academics and leading activists who are also passionate about animal welfare, will be appointed to the committee to oversee matters.
People who abandon animals on the roads and temples after allowing them to procreate without taking proper responsibility for them, imprison animals in kennels without giving them adequate freedom, and abuse or neglect them, will be subject to punishment under this law. The Bill introduces a duty of care on every person who is in charge of animal(s). The draft Act stipulates a fine of 100,000 LKR as well as a one-year prison sentence.
Crimes against the voiceless
Topics raised by the audience included instances of shops and even individuals selling animals at exorbitant amounts and making money from the practice of puppy mills, individuals and groups carrying out financial fraud in the names of animal welfare preying on others' compassion for animals, elephants and other wildlife being neglected and abused in zoos, tourism and cultural based animals abused such as for horseback riding or elephant riding as well as use of elephants in religious processions. The lack of veterinary clinics to tend to animals in need, lack of accountability by pet owners when abandoning their pets, the use of purebreds as a luxury item, use of social media in showcasing and displaying acts of cruelty towards animals, animals in captivity, transporting and even rearing poultry under intense, cruel conditions for consumption will be covered under Regulations to be Gazzetted by the Minister in charge, under the provisions of this Bill.
This Committee will monitor compliance with the provisions of this Act and take steps as deemed fit to ensure that ,the objectives of the legislation are met and modern standards of treatment of animals become part of the way that animals handled by people in charge, while at the same time ensuring that those who violate the law will face the enhanced sanctions including increase in the quantum of the fine, and the extension of the sentence of imprisonment.
A country in shame
"It is a shame that we have to hold events such as this to enact the Animal Welfare Bill in a country that had paid so much more consideration and respect for animals during pre-colonial times. We were known as the 'Aryawansa', or the 'noble race', because of the way we treated animals," said Attorney-At-Law Senaka Weeraratna who was the Legal Consultant on animal welfare legislation to the Law Commission of Sri Lanka and had worked tirelessly in an honorary capacity, from 2000 to 2006 to draft and revise the proposed Bill. "In other countries, people take pride in working for the welfare of the animals. However, here, no one takes the side of the animals in parliament except for a handful. Why? Because animals have no votes, no money and no clout. We treat them as exploitable, without objection from anyone bar a limited number of organisations and animal lovers. The meat industry is disproportionately powerful in this country. They have even silenced the lawmakers and the media, clearly indicated by the number of advertisements showcasing meat in the media," emphasised Mr Weeraratna.
Currently, an online petition initiated by activist Anoka Abeyratne at Change.org which requests the Sri Lankan Government to enact the Animal Welfare Bill has garnered more than 113,000 signatures. Citizens are invited to sign this historic petition by visiting https://www.change.org/p/prime-minister-of-sri-lanka-pass-and-enact-the-animal-welfare-bill-of-sri-lanka-to-replace-current-law-from-1907.
(You can find the petition by visiting change.org and searching for Charlie Animal Welfare)
The draft Act prepared by the Law Commission is available for perusal here