“PETA V. Germany” Case

On 8 November the Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg delivered judgment in the PETA Deutschland v. Germany case. The case concerns a civil injunction by the Berlin Regional Court in 2004 which prevented the animal rights’ organisation PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) from publishing a poster campaign featuring photos of concentration camps victims – some alive and naked and some piled-up dead human bodies - along with pictures of animals kept in mass stocks. The pictures were accompanied by short texts, such as “final humiliation”, “if animals are concerned, everybody becomes a Nazi” and “The Holocaust on your plate”. The injunction followed a complaint from three individuals who had survived the Holocaust when they were children, one of which had lost her family through the Holocaust. They submitted that the campaign was offensive and violated their human dignity as well as the personal rights’ of the dead family members.

In February 2009 the German Federal Constitutional Court rejected PETA’s complaint that the injunction had interfered with its freedom of expression under the German constitution. Later that same year PETA lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights complaining that the injunction preventing it from publishing the poster campaign violated its rights under Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In its judgment the ECHR concluded that, although freedom of expression is fundamentally important and applicable even to offending, shocking and disturbing ideas and information, in the present case, the German courts had given relevant and sufficient reasons for granting the civil injunction against the publication of the posters. The ECHR thereby accepted the findings of the domestic courts that putting concentration camp inmates and Holocaust victims on the same level as animals, violated those victims’ human dignity. In light of the clear distinction in the German Basic Law between human life and dignity on the one hand and the interests of animal protection on the other, and that the PETA campaign was banalising the fate of the victims of the Holocaust, the Court held that interference in PETA’s freedom of expression was justified.    

The judgment is interesting since it sets a limit on how far extreme animal rights’ groups can push their campaigns.

The judgment is “non-final” meaning that during a three-month period following its delivery, any party may request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court.