Groundbreaking Animal Rights
Legislation Passed in Austria
from No Compromise Issue 24

By Martin Balluch

In Austria, activists have achieved an historic victory. On May 27th, the Austrian Parliament voted unanimously in favor of our three demands: a ban on battery egg farming, the placement of animal rights alongside human rights in the Constitution and the creation of animal solicitors to take up court cases on behalf of nonhuman animals. In order to achieve this, we ran an essentially classic, grassroots campaign.

It all began in March 1996, when we instigated a population initiative. Within a specific week, Austrian voters can come forward to their magistrate to sign on to a particular initiative. If 100,000 signatures are collected in support of a particular issue, the Parliament will put that initiative topic on its agenda. For our initiative, a stunning 460,000 people (8% of the electorate) signed on. Hence, Parliament set up a committee to debate the issue. But after that, not surprisingly, the initiative went nowhere in Parliament. That was when we took action and ratcheted up our efforts.

In autumn 2002, Austria had its first national animal rights conference. This helped to unify the movement and form strong links between groups. Whereas previously, different groups did not even know of or talk to each other, after the conference, alliances were formed, and forty groups joined together on a platform.

In the subsequent parliamentary elections, we forced all political parties to declare their policy on animal rights. When the Conservative party refused to agree to anything, we conducted a thirteen-hour occupation of their headquarters just before the elections. As a consequence, they agreed to at least debate a new law.

Thereafter, we conducted a carefully-orchestrated campaign over the next eighteen months, which eventually ended with the unanimous Parliamentary vote enacting all our demands. A number of ingredients were vital to our success.

First and foremost we identified the enemy: the Conservative party. By focusing on them while maintaining close contact with the other parties, we achieved two things. First, it led the other parties to agree with us in order to avoid becoming our next target. We also made it impossible for the Conservatives to pass the buck, which they have always tried to do.

We used every election, whether national or regional, as an opportunity to attack the Conservatives. We used media, fly-pasted placards, and held daily demos where we showed a video on large screens on the streets-- the usual grassroots tactics. And surely enough, whether it was due to our efforts or not, the Conservatives started to loose one election after another.

Another vital ingredient in winning the battle was establishing very close links with about a dozen journalists sympathetic to animal rights. We were able to convince them that the issue was important, that we were reliable and that we could supply them with up-to-date information.

For example, in summer 2003, we visited 48 battery farms within two weeks and were able to provide video evidence that almost all of them breached animal welfare regulations. We also did three open rescues of battery hens. For all these actions, we had media with us from the start.

A variety of additional actions are needed to enable the sympathetic journalists to cover the issue regularly over a long time period. So in addition to the aforementioned actions, we commissioned a professional opinion polling agency, held press conferences with scientists, found 78 prominent Austrians to sign our demands, ran full-page newspaper advertisements, presented collected signatures to the Parliament, and publicly introduced our new film to the public. Also, the criminal trials following our investigations and open rescues all served to highlight the issue.

In the end the media engine ran on its own. Newspapers and TV stations decided to cover the issue permanently. Suddenly, the dam broke, and the Conservatives gave way, agreeing to the battery egg farm ban.

Even though no party actually fully wanted animal rights in the Constitution, public pressure was so strong that no party could afford to oppose it openly. Hence, the unanimous vote was achieved through such a relentless pressure as has never been seen on any issue before.

As a consequence, from now on all political parties will have to worry about ending up on the wrong end of the stick. All of them now have animal rights spokespersons who will stay in contact with us. Animal rights has become an important political question and a deciding factor in mainstream election campaigns.

What have we achieved? First, there is the law that animals are more than just “things.” The lives and well-being of animals are now protected by the Constitution, which sees them as sentient beings and fellows of humankind.

Also, each Austrian province will now have animal solicitors, who can take up court cases for animals. This is a vital step towards public acceptance that animals deserve the same protection as people under the law. Obviously, the character of each animal solicitor will be the deciding factor in how useful this institution will be. But in principle, the stage is set for an all-out attack on the animal abuse industry.

Based on the institution of animal solicitors, we plan, later this year, to start court procedures for a trial on ape rights, based on the illegal capture and import of chimps into an Austrian vivisection lab in 1982. These chimps are now in a sanctuary, but we plan to start procedures against the lab for compensation. I am very curious as to how that will go.

And last but not least, we have a ban on battery egg farming. Currently, there are about 700 battery farms in Austria with 2100 employees all together. Most of those will have to close down by Jan 1, 2009 (in 4 1/2 years), because they won't be able to change to free range or barn production. That is a major blow to the animal abuse industry.