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Animal Activists, Civil Disobedience and Global Responses to Transnational Injustice


Traditionally, acts of civil disobedience are understood as a mechanism by which citizens may express dissatisfaction with a law of their country. That expression will typically be morally motivated, non-violent and aimed at changing their government’s policy, practice or law. Building on existing work, in this paper we explore the limits of one well-received definition of civil disobedience by considering the challenging case of the actions of animal activists at sea. Drawing on original interviews with advocates associated with Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and Humane Society International we find that even if animal activists are morally motivated and civil, the transnational nature of their activity makes it difficult to assess their intention to bring about a change in law or public policy. This means that a civil disobedience defence may not be available to activists operating across international borders. This raises important questions about the usefulness of the civil disobedience concept within the context of a globalised world. We conclude that while the actions of some anti-whaling activists may not meet definitions of civil disobedience as conventionally understood, this says more about the narrow way in which that concept has been traditionally defined, than it does about the type of activity some anti-whaling activists have undertaken in the Southern Ocean. Finally, we argue that activists wishing to make a stand against whaling may have no choice but to act as global citizens because policy change within a single nation-state is unlikely to lead to the cessation of this inherently transnational activity.

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The authors would like to thank the University of Melbourne’s Human Rights and Animal Ethics (HRAE) Research Network for their support, in particular Professor Barbara Creed. We would like to thank Felix Gedye for assisting with the interviews, as well as all the volunteers and staff (past and present) of Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace and the Australian branch of HSI who allowed us to interview them. This article would not have been possible without their support. We would also like to thank numerous colleagues from around the world who spoke to us about this paper and who provided us with useful feedback along the way. In particular we would like to thank Terry Macdonald, Robyn Eckersley and Tony Milligan. Finally, we would like to thank the anonymous referees at Res Publica for their insightful feedback and encouragement.

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Correspondence to Siobhan O’Sullivan.

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O’Sullivan, S., McCausland, C. & Brenton, S. Animal Activists, Civil Disobedience and Global Responses to Transnational Injustice. Res Publica 23, 261–280 (2017).

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  • Civil disobedience
  • Transnational injustice
  • Rawls
  • Anti-whaling activism
  • Animals