Switzerland was challenged in European Court of Human Rights Because of the failure to provide adequate vegetarian meals to a prisoner and a patient in the psychiatric department of a hospital, in a situation that could lead to the interpretation of vegetarianism as a property protected by the right to freedom of conscience throughout geographical Europe.
The court, which is part of the Council of Europe and not the European Union, this week formally asked its member state Switzerland To respond to two complaints that Swiss state institutions had failed to provide two providers with a completely vegetarian diet while they were in prison and in the hospital psychiatric unit respectively.
The case centers on an unnamed Swiss animal rights activist, who was arrested in November 2018 over a series of burglaries and damage to slaughterhouses, butchers’ shops and restaurants across western Switzerland.
The 28-year-old was placed in pre-trial detention at Geneva’s Champ-d’Olonne prison for 11 months, with cantonal judges saying there was a risk of repetition due to the appellant’s “lack of awareness and remorse”.
Within days of his imprisonment, the man complained to the prison authorities that he had not been provided with an adequate diet in keeping with his vegetarian convictions, and that he had to fend for himself with side salads, rice or burger buns.
He refused supplemental treatment with vitamin B12 – whose low intake can cause anemia and damage to the nervous system – until prison offered a version of non-animal origin. However, a doctor later diagnosed the prisoner with constipation, hemorrhoids, and iron deficiency.
The prison refused a written request to change the diet, and said it had already taken measures so that the prisoner could benefit from a diet as close as possible to his beliefs.
The appeal was deemed inadmissible by the Swiss Federal Court in June 2020, after which the prisoner’s lawyer took the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which is made up of 46 judges from each country that has signed the European Convention. Human Rights Convention, among which are countries outside the European Union such as the United Kingdom, Turkey, Norway and Switzerland.
A former patient at a psychiatric hospital unit in Switzerland joined the appeal, saying he, too, was denied access to a vegetarian diet.
The Strasbourg court, which dismissed about 95% of the cases before it, accepted the appeal.
In its decision announced this week, the court specifically asked the Swiss state to consider whether the Geneva prison had violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” .
The Swiss state now has three to four months to answer questions from the European Court of Human Rights, after which the European Court is likely to clarify its position on whether the right to a vegetarian diet in prison and hospital is enshrined in the agreement.
The issue is of particular importance in French-speaking Switzerland, where “anti-species” is an important activist movement. But the Strasbourg court ruling will also have far-reaching consequences for the provision of food in prisons and hospitals in the Council of Europe’s 46 member states, which represent some 700 million people.
While the right to a vegan diet in prison for religious reasons is already covered in case law in some European countries, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights could expand this by defining vegetarianism as an ethical system of belief.
In a similar case, in 2019 an Ontario firefighter filed a complaint with the Ontario Court of Human Rights against his employer, the Department of Natural Resources and Forests, for insufficient provision of plant food while fighting a wildfire in British Columbia.
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