THE preamble of the 1982 World Charter for Nature says, "Every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man." With the emergence of the new field of environmental law, this statement led to the issue of awarding rights to subjects other than man and has granted legal standing to natural entities such as rivers and mountains and the right of species to survive.
Thus far, the following are instances when Mother Nature gained legal standing:
1. In 2008, Ecuador set a legal precedent by giving nature rights like humans in its Constitution. This is interpreted to mean that the entire ecosystems has the "right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate." Actually, Ecuador is the first country in the world to enshrine rights of nature in the Constitution.
2. Bolivia identified the rights of nature to include the right to life, dignity of life, water, clean air and restoration in its 2010 Law of the Rights of Mother Earth.
3. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh endowed rivers with legal personhood in 2019. That was the offshoot of a case to save the Turag River from pollution, sand extraction and even landgrabbing. It was the first instance when Bangladesh gave legal rights to all its rivers.
4. An Indian court recognized the Himalayan glaciers as legal persons in an effort to curb environmental destruction.
5. A river in New Zealand's North Island became the subject of rights in 2017. A local Maori tribe has fought for nearly 150 years for the Whanganui River to be recognized as an ancestor and a legal person with rights and duties, including property rights, in its riverbed.
6. Colombia's Supreme Court in 2018 recognized the Colombian Amazon as an "entity subject of rights," just as its Constitutional Court in 2016 did with the Atrato River. Such was the conclusion reached by court in its historic decision ordering the president and the ministers of environment and agriculture to make an action plan to reduce deforestation for the life of the Colombian Amazon. Considered as part of the 'lungs of the earth' which absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that produce the greenhouse gas effect, the ruling is a significant step in the inclusion of forest protection in climate change mitigation.
What about the rights of animals?
Humans and apes
Historically, Darwin was the first to notice that apes can communicate; so can dolphins. Does that make them like humans? "Humans and apes may both have opposable thumbs but what makes us unique is our invention of language," opined journalist and Esquire writer Tom Wolfe. Throughout his life, he never seemed to forget that all humans are glorified talking apes, who stumbled upon a new tool.
In 2018, the Uttarakhand high court in India declared the animal kingdom (including the avian and aquatic creatures) to be legal entities with the rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.
In the Philippines, the closest Supreme Court came out with a decision involving the legal standing of animals is in a 2012 case (Resident Marine Mammals of the Protected Seascape Tanon Strait, e.g., toothed whales, dolphins, porpoises and other cetacean species, joined in and represented by human beings Gloria Estenzo Ramos et al v. DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes et al) wherein the court initially said dolphins and other sea mammals have no legal personality but eventually, as guardians of the marine species in the Tanon Strait, allowed their representation in the case by young environmental lawyers from the Visayas region.
In the US, a habeas corpus (one has the body of a person) proceeding on behalf of Happy, a 48-year-old female Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo in New York City, gained prominence in environmental law circles around the world.
The grounds for the habeas corpus action were: 1) Happy was unlawfully imprisoned in the zoo and should be relocated to one of the two elephant sanctuaries in the US. 2) Happy had lived alone in a 1-acre enclosure which constituted solitary confinement, "notwithstanding the incontrovertible scientific evidence that the elephant is an autonomous, intelligent being with advanced cognition abilities akin to human beings." 3) The Bronx Zoo imprisons Happy in a tiny, cold, lonely, un-elephant friendly and unnatural place and ignores her autonomy as well as her social, emotional and bodily liberty needs.
The court rejected the application of habeas corpus elaborating on what it takes to be deemed a "person" and defined legal personhood as a function of having both rights and duties in society. Elephants "cannot bear duties, submit to social responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their action...rendering it inappropriate to confer upon elephants the legal rights such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus accorded to human beings."
In connection with that ruling is a decision rendered in another case, Cetacean Community v. Bush (386 F.3d 1169, 1176 (9th Cir. 2004) wherein it was stated: "[I]t is obvious that an animal cannot function as a plaintiff in the same manner as a judicially competent human being. But we see no reason why Article III prevents Congress from authorizing a suit in the name of an animal any more than it prevents suits brought in the name of artificial persons such as corporations, partnerships or trusts, and even ships, or of judicially incompetent persons such as infants, juveniles and mental incompetents." Ultimately, however, in resolving the issue of whether the world's cetaceans have standing under relevant federal legislation, it failed to find such authorization in the statutes under consideration.
Legal standing of artificial intelligence
The issue of standing and personhood of animals easily leads to other issues such as artificial intelligence and intellectual property. For example, if a human being creates a software that qualifies as artificial intelligence, i.e., it can teach itself and learn, and that software generates a piece of music, does that copyright belong to the artificial intelligence or the programmer ?
The US Copyright Office has stated that to qualify for "authorship" a work must be created by a human being. Non-qualifying examples include a photograph taken by a monkey or a mural painted by an elephant. In the same vein are works produced by a machine or mere mechanical process that operates randomly or automatically without any creative input or intervention from a human author.
In the UK, the author of a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work which is computer-generated is the "person by whom the arrangements necessary for the work are undertaken."
In Spain and Germany, only works created by a human being can be protected by copyright.
The European Union parliament has addressed specifically the legal status of robots as "electronic persons" for purposes of liability. This needs further elaboration and, ultimately, a legislative enactment.
Changed law in a changed world?
As with animals, the issue of legal standing for artificial intelligence depends on legislative response or action through a new or amended legislation. Be it noted that animal intelligence is biological, not artificial. Whether that fact ultimately makes a difference remains to be seen.
In all this, the purpose of law - to put order in society - will matter much. As taught in law schools, there is nothing permanent in law. It keeps on changing, evolving. No surprises if animals and artificial intelligence cope with the needs of a changed world after the worldwide climate emergency and health crisis are over via changed law on the rights of animals and artificial intelligence.