Sealers and the right to human dignity

The public discourse on the non-indigenous, commercial seal hunt is marked by connotations of barbarism and brutality. And indeed, stemming from my own fieldwork in the Newfoundland hunt, sealing is not pretty. But then again, is killing an animal ever pretty? The answer is quite obviously ‘no’.

Lookout of a sealing vessel © Nikolas Sellheim

Leaving aside the question of whether there is a need for Newfoundlanders to kill seals – a question that has a multitude of angles to it – it is necessary to acknowledge that the seal hunt has existed in Newfoundland for centuries and is likely to continue, even in light of currently declining markets. And with this in mind it is necessary to consider whether the discourse on sealing and sealers may have human rights implications.

When countries and organisations vocally oppose commercial sealing, essentially, it boils down to a universal view on the human-animal relationship – or in other words the view of animals (seals) being rights holders. Humans hunting these animals are, therefore, violators of certain rights. This consequently feeds the discourse of barbarism – a discourse that the European Union has embedded in its ban on trade in seal products from 2009: while during the drafting process the seal hunt has been labelled as ‘inherently cruel’, the current regime notes that seals are indeed “sentient beings that can experience pain, distress, fear and other forms of suffering.” While this is itself indisputable, linked with prevailing images on the seal hunt, we enter the realm of a human rights angle to this discourse. The right to dignity.

The right to dignity

The right to dignity is not a violable right as such, but constitutes a foundational principle of international human rights law. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) reads: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Fundamental human rights instruments echo this notion. Also the European Convention on Human Rights recognises “the inherent dignity of all human beings.”

Throughout the drafting process of the ban, little regard has been paid to the separation of sealers as human beings from the seal hunt, which could have potentially eradicated the stigma of ‘barbarism.’ Instead, EU policy-makers continued narrating the sealers along similar lines as organisations opposing it without asking the question why the hunt occurs in the first place. Given that no consultation between policy-makers and commercial sealers occurred, a legal regime has been put in place that can be considered as violating the fundamental right of human dignity.

After all, by making the prevailing discourse an inherent part of the current legal regime, the ability of sealers to continue sealing for their own good is made more difficult: apart from legal barriers for trade in seal products it is now also the full weight of a legal discourse that advocates sealing as something barbaric and sealers as the champions of this barbarism. The right to dignity is thus no longer a given.

This is particularly the case since under Canadian law the seal hunt is fully legal and strictly regulated. Even though the EU regulates its own internal market, the ban has tremendous external effects since it causes cascading effects and motivates other countries to follow suit. Therefore, by denying sealing communities the ability to hunt seals by shutting down markets, the EU infringes upon sealers’ rights to maintain their dignity and to define their own needs.

Cultural fault lines

While sealers in Newfoundland maintain that they need the seal hunt for economic and cultural reasons, others, such as the EU, do not consider this view valid given that the brutality of the hunt trumps this need. Apart from the human rights implications of this issue, borrowing from Daniel Yankelovich, “cultural fault lines” aggravate a dialogue between Newfoundland sealers, EU policy-makers and other seal-opposing entities. Sealers rights and, arguably, narrated seal rights appear not to be on the same level, making a reasoned dialogue politically and culturally difficult.

Further reading

  • Sellheim, N. (2018). Perceiving dignity, needs and rights: seal hunting communities and international human rights standards. In: L. Heininen & M. Finger (Eds.). Global Arctic Handbook (pp. 9–26). Berlin: Springer
  • Wegge, N. (2013). Politics between science, law and sentiments: explaining the European Union’s ban on trade in seal products. Environmental Politics 22(2): 255–273.
  • Yankelovich, D. (1999). The magic of dialogue. Transforming conflict into cooperation. New York: Touchstone.

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