Cantonal initiative “Basic rights for primates”

As primates, we humans belong to the same order as over five hundred other primate species. Bonobos, gorillas, but also macaques and guenons are among our closest relatives. Like us humans, they are characterised by their high intelligence, the use of tools, the nurture of a family life, social rules and rituals, close friendships, a complex communicative communication, multi-layered learning processes, empathy and sensitivity. Yet we exploit them for the purposes of entertainment and research. They cannot defend themselves against us, because they have no rights.

The prioritisation of human interests over those of other animals is also reflected in the worldwide extinction of species. In order to protect our fellow sentient beings and nature, we need to rethink our approach. Animals deserve to be protected on the basis of their inherent value and not only within the framework of how we can use them. With the cantonal initiative “Basic rights for primates”, we demanded limited rights for all non-human primates in the canton of Basel-Stadt, namely the right to life as well as the right to physical and mental integrity. We did not consider our position to be radical.

The initiative went back a long way. After Sentience launched the initiative in 2017, the cantonal government of Basel decided to declare it invalid. However, the Cantonal Constitutional Court disagreed and declared that it was admissible. Six members of the Grand Council Office took the initial ruling further, but the Federal Supreme Court also came to the conclusion that the initiative was valid and could be submitted to the people for a vote. The costs of the proceedings were not paid for by the six individuals, but by Basel taxpayers’ money. Due to an apparent lack of time on the part of the Grand Council, the vote was delayed and eventually took place on 13 February 2022. It coincided with the national popular initiative to ban animal and human experimentation, which was considered to have no chance of success. Although it had important and well-intentioned aims, it put the population on a rather critical course with respect to the improved status of non-human animals.


Despite various detours and hurdles, the Primate initiative was finally submitted to the people. It stirred up the international media landscape, especially in the lead up to the vote. For the first time in the world, an electorate was allowed to vote democratically on whether non-human animals should be granted basic rights. Although it was not enough for a majority on 13 February 2022, about a quarter (25.26%) of the people of Basel, as well as parties including the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, were in favour. This can be considered a success for such a pioneering project.

Not only on a local and national level, but in over 18 countries, newspapers and radio stations reported in more than 300 media articles about the groundbreaking debate on animal rights being introduced by us. Many readers and listeners became aware for the first time that, despite animal protection legislation, we still put human interests above any need of other animals.

In recent years, the same debate has gained ground in other countries with individual rights for elephants, hippos and monkeys. It will grow in relevance until we give more consideration to non-human interests. Sentience will continue to advocate for the rights of sentient animals and will strive to achieve further political and regulatory progress to minimise the suffering of non-human animals.