Scientists, scholars, attorneys draft a declaration of rights for whales and dolphins
A New Beginning for Dolphins
Part Three of “Dolphins and Us”
A New Beginning for Dolphins
Could Tilikum Also Be Set Free?
Making the Case
Is SeaWorld on the Ropes?
In the World Spotlight
SeaWorld Testifies before Congress
How You Can Help
Interviews & Reports
The Case for Dolphin Rights
When the Watchdog is Just a Guard Dog
Communion in the Wild
By Lori Marino, Ph.D.
Helsinki, Finland is a vibrant political, educational and cultural capital on the Baltic Sea. Home to half a million northern Europeans, it was the early pioneer of the cell phone industry.
But Helsinki is also the site of some of the most important ethical milestones for human rights: the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which set forth principles for respectful and cooperative relations among nations; and the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, which laid out ethical principles for the medical community regarding experimentation on humans.
In May of this year, Helsinki became the site of another historic ethical decision – this time for non-humans: The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Dolphins and Whales.
Acknowledging that they are “persons” with innate rights
The Declaration grew out of the abundant scientific evidence for complex intelligence, self-awareness and culture in whales and dolphins, and the recognition that these characteristics imply that they are persons – not human, but rather cetacean, persons.
Persons are aware of themselves and others, and act in ways that show they recognize and respect other persons. In light of this conclusion, distinguished scientists and scholars came together to lead a conference at the University of Helsinki to develop a case for the recognition of rights for cetacean persons.
Drafting the declaration – a passionate discussion
Among us was Tom White, pioneering philosopher and author of In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, and Hal Whitehead, whose long term field studies have revealed to the world the stunning complexity of cetacean cultures.
On the first day of the conference, each member of the group gave a presentation to students and faculty of the university. On the second day, the group sat down together to draft the declaration.
Although we were all agreed on the basics – like the fact that “Every individual cetacean has the right to life” – there were several issues to be resolved.
For example, in order to protect whales and dolphins, you have to protect their environment. Should we include that in the Declaration? How would it apply to the fact that whale migration routes (their environment) have been taken over as commercial shipping lanes and that whales are being killed by these ships almost every day?
There was also the question of whale and dolphin culture. When it comes to human rights, it’s not enough to say that we have individual rights. To acknowledge the rights of an indigenous people, you have to respect not only the individuals, but their whole culture. The same goes for whales and dolphins, who live in complex societies with highly developed cultures. Should we include the protection of their cultures?
And how would the Declaration apply to certain people, like the Inuit, who say they rely on whales for food? What happens when human rights conflict with cetacean rights?
All of this became grist for an intense discussion. But by the end of the meeting, we had agreed on what should be included, and so was born the first The Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Dolphins and Whales.
The right to life, liberty and wellbeing
The Declaration affirms that all persons, including cetaceans, have the right to life, liberty, and wellbeing. It asserts that captivity is a violation of the innate rights of whales and dolphins, and that no cetacean is the property of an individual, state or corporation.
In many ways the Declaration is a restatement of what we already know. These are familiar and self-evident truths that have been applied to human rights down through the ages. What’s new is that we now know that humans are not the only “persons” on the planet and are, therefore, not the only species to enjoy these rights. The Declaration is a formal recognition of that fact.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society will be drawing on this Declaration to bring about global policy change for cetaceans. You can read the entire Declaration and become a supporter of this effort as a signatory here.
Please visit, read about the statements supporting the Declaration and become part of what is sure to be a revolutionary effort to officially expand our moral obligations beyond the bounds of our own species.
Dr. Lori Marino is a senior lecturer in psychology and neuroscience at Emory University. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Aurelia Center for Animals and Cultural Change, and the Science Editor of Zoe.