When Is a Ban Not a Ban?

We defend those who cannot defend themselves, speak up for the voiceless, campaign for what is in their best interests, not our own. That's our job.

This week some will claim that South Korea has banned animal testing for cosmetics, but it won't be true. Press releases, blogs, memes and tweets will hail it as a victory and laud South Korea for being the second Asian country to ban cosmetics cruelty. But Humane Society International's #BeCrueltyFree campaign won't be jumping on that bandwagon; to do so would be a betrayal of the thousands of rabbits, guinea pigs, mice and other animals who suffer to test cosmetics.

The truth is that South Korea's politicians had a golden opportunity to ban all animal testing for cosmetics, but they chose not to, and that's a great shame. Instead they have proposed a 'mandatory alternatives' bill. Unlike the robust test bans that we have seen achieved in the European Union, Israel and India that make it illegal to subject animals to painful test procedures for cosmetics, South Korea will ban only those tests for which an alternative test is available and approved by the Korean authorities.

Safety testing for a new cosmetic ingredient can comprise a variety of different animal-poisoning tests, such as 'acute toxicity' (lethal poisoning from a single massive dose) or 'repeated dose' toxicity (where animals are force-fed the chemical every day for one-three months), or other tests for which no non-animal alternatives yet exist. And where those alternatives gaps persist, animals will continue to suffer in cosmetics tests in South Korea. That's a pretty major loophole, and falls far short of a ban.

Loopholes cost lives

There are other exemptions too - for example, it will still allow ingredients that are newly animal tested for other regulatory purposes to be used in cosmetics, which provides industry with a ready-made strategy for circumventing any ban. All they need do is carry on testing on animals, claim it is not for 'cosmetics purposes' and it's business as usual.

So to answer the question - when is a ban not a ban? - the answer for HSI is when that so-called ban allows animals to continue being subjected to distressing toxicity tests where chemicals are force fed down their throats until they suffer organ damage and seizures, or even death. That doesn't sound much like a ban to us, and that's why we won't be celebrating it as such.

Integrity first

But it's not just our organisational integrity that prevents us applauding a legislative process that has avoided embracing an opportunity to end animal suffering. Claiming that South Korea has banned cosmetics animal testing, and patting its policy makers on the back for achieving something they haven't really achieved, is a very dangerous game that gambles with the lives of thousands of animals waiting for test bans to come to their country next.

As NGOs we are in a very privileged and principled position. We defend those who cannot defend themselves, speak up for the voiceless, campaign for what is in their best interests, not our own. That's our job. That means that when we are sitting across the table with legislators, regulators and companies who have the power to make life-changing decisions for animals, we hold their feet to the fire and we negotiate for the best outcome. To succeed, all NGOs working to achieve the same goal need to hold the line. The moment someone breaks ranks and agrees to applaud an outcome vastly inferior to the end goal, it's game over for the rest of us. And that's what's happened in South Korea. A pressured politician with industry's vested interests breathing down her neck can find very welcome cover in undeserved plaudits.

But it's not just animals in South Korea's laboratories who have lost out. This could set a very dangerous precedent for other countries, too, which see South Korea cheered on for implementing a 'ban' that is considerably weaker than anything we're asking for. By setting the bar so low, South Korea could adversely impact the global trend by letting countries off the hook.

So what does the South Korea case teach us?

First, popular support has to be based on honesty. Consumers all over the world want an end to animals suffering for cosmetics, and we actively encourage them to get involved to help us achieve change. So we owe it to them to celebrate when we have a genuine victory, but also to explain truthfully when the outcome falls short of what we hoped for.

Second, our determination to achieve real change for animals must always be our top priority, not selling animals short for a quick media hit.

Third, our #BeCrueltyFree teams around the world in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Taiwan and elsewhere will now have to work even harder to achieve genuine change for animals in cosmetics tests. Please give them your support.

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