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  • May 2017 : Ritual animal slaughter in Belgian law : recent developments

Whether during a religious feast or otherwise, the ritual slaughter methods prescribed by Muslim and Jewish rites regularly spark heated controversy. Specifically, these religions prohibit stunning the animals in advance to ensure that the death occurs as a result of the actual slaughter and not the stunning — and thus have leading animal rights advocates up in arms against the ritual, considered contrary to animal welfare in that it causes them unnecessary pain and suffering. Conversely, Muslim and Jewish followers practising ritual slaughter without stunning are indignant against those who advocate for an across-the-board obligation to stun animals, which they see as a direct attack on the exercise of their religious freedoms. They are quick to emphasise their concern for animal welfare, which they believe ritual slaughter without stunning would also satisfy.

Beyond the technical matters relating to veterinary medicine, and the theological controversies on the subject, let us recall that European law – and, by transcription, Belgian law – provides for an exception, precisely for religious reasons, to the obligation of stunning. As the conditions governing ritual slaughter were recently reinforced by Council Regulation EU 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or killing (O.J.E.U., L.303.1, 18 November 2009, p. 1), some concluded that it was no longer tenable to engage in slaughter without stunning in a temporary establishment, as had previously been arranged annually, in connection with the Eid-el-Kebir feast in order to satisfy the increased demand.

Until recently, under Belgian law, matters of animal welfare were still the exclusive preserve of the federal government. It was on the occasion of the sixth State reform in 2014 that they were entrusted to the country’s three regions - the Walloon, Brussels-Capital and the Flemish. Since then, the list of powers granted to the regions, as set out in Article 6 § 1 of the Special Law on Institutional Reforms of 8 August 1980, has been supplemented by an eleventh subject (XI) : “animal welfare”. More specifically, with this addition, “the power to establish and monitor animal welfare standards” was transferred to the three regions (Doc. parl., Senate, Ord. Sess. 2013-2014, No. 5-2232/1, Art. 24, p. 153).

Since this transfer of powers, the way in which ritual slaughter is approached may thus differ from one region to another in Belgium.

In 2015, the government of the Walloon region and the government of the Flemish region adopted an order prohibiting ritual slaughter without prior stunning at the temporary slaughterhouses set up for religious holidays.

In the Dutch-speaking regions, the stated desire to prohibit ritual slaughter is not limited to temporary slaughterhouses. In 2014 and 2015, two draft decrees were submitted with a view to making the obligation to stun absolute and thereby abolishing the exception established for ritual slaughter. In a ruling handed down on 29 June 2016 on these two decree initiatives, the Council of State ruled that a complete ban on slaughter without stunning would disproportionately infringe on the religious freedom of the believers concerned (Parl. Doc., Flemish Parliament, 2014-2015, no. 111/2, Parl. Doc., Flemish Parliament, 2014-2015, no. 351/2). Following, in this respect, the position already held in another opinion issued in 2005 on a similar proposal (Parl. Doc., Senate, 2005-2006, no. 3-808/6), the Legislation Division of the High Administrative Court based its decision on the fact that ‘this decision would make it too difficult for a number of believers to buy and consume meat deemed in accordance with their religious precepts’ (Legislation Division of the Council of State, opinion no. 59.484/3 and 59.485/3, op. cit., para. 14). It should be pointed out that, contrasting with this position, several European countries – including some EU Member States – have made stunning compulsory, furthermore deeming it compatible with respect for religious freedom (see the report issued by the Dialrel project – Encouraging Dialogue on issues of Religious Slaughter, 2010).

Since then, on both the Walloon and Flemish ends, the legislator’s intent to disregard the opinion of the Council of State and to impose, as of 2019, stunning for ritual slaughter using specific techniques supposed to make this stunning compatible with the requirements of the denominations concerned, has been confirmed.

With regard to the situation in the Brussels region, in contrast to her Flemish and Walloon counterparts, the Minister responsible for matters of animal welfare did not decide to ban slaughter without stunning. In 2015, she submitted a preliminary draft decree suggesting the institution of “thorough training” for those performing the sacrifice “in order to reduce the animals’ stress and suffering”. The order was ultimately adopted on 9 February 2017 and now provides that a “‘certificate of competence’ shall be earned further to completion of training on slaughter and killing and the passing of an independent examination [...]. This training shall be provided by an animal welfare officer and/or another person with demonstrable expertise in the field of animal welfare during slaughter and killing and/or by a training institute, on the basis of a course approved by the Institute”.

Whatever the approach chosen, the question as to the regulation of ritual slaughter remains, as a backdrop, that of a “balance” that needs to be struck between the freedom of religious practice – and the rites this entails – and the protection of animal welfare. In attempting to answer this delicate question, it is probably important to bear in mind the wording of Article 9, Paragraph 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides that “Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”. It could thus be argued that sparing animals any suffering is part of the protection of public health and order. In this respect, from a legal standpoint, it is thus essentially on the basis of proportionality that this question could be resolved, for example if the European Court of Human Rights were to be called upon to consider it.

It remains that the tensions between animal welfare and the practice of ritual slaughter also raise a host of political, philosophical and psychological questions, the responses to which will likely emerge only through a combination of field studies and platforms for discussion between State authorities and religious groups in order to find common ground conducive to living in harmony.

Source :
 L. VANBELLIGEN, "Souffrances des animaux et des hommes", Ojurel, 9 juillet 2016.
 S. WATTIER, "Animaux", in Dictionnaire de la sixième réforme de l’Etat, M. UYTTENDAELE et M. VERDUSSEN (dir.), Bruxelles, Larcier, 2015, p. 41-45.
 Rapport du projet de recherche ‘DIALREL’ : S. Ferrari, R. Bottoni, "Report on the legislation regarding religious slaughter in the EU, candidate and associated countries", Dialrel – Encouraging Dialogue on issues of Religious Slaughter, février 2010.
 E. VERMEERSCH, "Volgens de Koran is God barmhartig (dus ook voor dieren)", De Standaard, 6 juillet 2016.
 Arrêté du gouvernement de la région de Bruxelles-Capitale du 9 février 2017 relatif à la protection des animaux pendant l’abattage et la mise à mort, M.B., 24 février 2017.

D 24 mai 2017    ALéopold Vanbellingen AStéphanie Wattier

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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