Britain clamps down on animal activists' tactics
UK government proposes legislation to curb 'economic' campaigning.
Animal rights activists who disrupt UK medical research could face up to five years in jail, if a legal amendment proposed by the British government becomes law.
The new law would make it a criminal offence to cause "economic damage" to businesses connected with animal research, either by intimidating individuals or by interfering with commercial activities.
"Animal rights extremism is out of control," says Simon Festing, head of the Research Defence Society, London, which lobbies for the use of animals in research. "It's time something was done about these zealots."
Research Defence Society
"This new law would not affect the important right to peaceful protest, while cracking down hard on those extremists committing crimes, and some horrific acts, against innocent people involved in the supply chain," says the trade and industry secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who announced the amendment on 31 January.
But Adolfo Sansolini, head of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, London, says that the legislation is an overreaction. "For every one extremist who uses intimidatory tactics, there are hundreds of thousands of non-violent activists who work peacefully and lawfully towards their goal of abolishing experiments on animals."
The amendment is part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police bill1, which will be voted on by the UK parliament in the coming months. If successful, the bill would become law around October 2005.
The bill, first presented to the House of Commons on 24 November 2004, already includes measures to prevent protestors gathering outside people's homes if it is likely to cause residents "alarm or distress". Campaigners in the United States are urging their government to introduce similar laws.
The US Animal Enterprise Protection Act was passed in 1992 to discourage the disruption of commercial activities using animals. The act is "really pretty antiquated", says Mary Hanley, executive vice-president of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which lobbies for the use of animals in research.
Animal rights activism has grown in the United States in the past decade, she says: "It's more sophisticated, and it's more violent." Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), one of Britain's most notorious groups, is now extremely active in the United States, promoting the same tactics that have proved so effective in Britain.
"The UK government has made extremely large strides on this issue in the past year," says Hanley. "We'd sure like to see that happen here."
Britain has a long history of animal-rights activism. In the past decade, supporters of animal research have been attacked with baseball bats and had letter bombs delivered to their homes. Economic harassment has become increasingly common in recent years.
For example, the University of Oxford has been hard hit by protests over a new £18-million ($34-million) biomedical research facility. Last year, the protests drove one contractor to pull out of the project. The bill should prevent a repeat of this, says Barry Keverne, chairman of the Royal Society's committee on animals in research.
Britain already has the strictest laws in the world controlling the use of animals in research, says Colin Blakemore, head of the UK Medical Research Council. "It is essential that researchers and those working with them are able to carry out their work without fear of intimidation," he says.
- Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill (House of Commons, London, 2004), http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmbills/005/2005005.htm.