‘Dwarf tossing’ is a controversial activity which commonly occurs in settings such as pubs. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dwarf as an ‘abnormally small person’. The term dwarf tossing is self-explanatory, it refers to an activity where a dwarf is clothed in padded attire and a helmet, then they are literally tossed and thrown around. It can also involve putting the dwarf in a harness and seeing how far they can be thrown.
The controversial nature of the activity tests the way in which human rights are applied to modern issues. The activity is construed by some as being degrading, but is considered to be performance art by others.
Is there any difference between a dwarf choosing to be involved in such activities and game shows involving people partaking in barbarous and degrading activities on television for the purpose of entertainment, or those who work in the circus for a living?
The activity of dwarf tossing has not been readily accepted by domestic law in various countries including Ireland, the United States of America and France. It was outlawed in the state of Florida in 1989 and subsequently there was an attempt to repeal this prohibition which failed.
Another example is the case of Manuel Wackenheim v. France (2002) involving the issue of dwarf tossing which was brought to the UN Human Rights Committee. The argument against dwarf tossing was on the basis of article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This states that: ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
The respondent was a dwarf who had been taking part in dwarf tossing events at the local discotheque since July 1991 and this was a form of employment for him. On two occasions between 30 October 1991 and 8 October 1992, the mayor of the Aix-en-Provence consecutively ordered a ban on dwarf tossing events scheduled to take place at the local discotheque. On both occasions, the respondent successfully appealed to the administrative court for an annulment of the order. The mayor in turn appealed the decision which was overturned by the Council of State on the ground that dwarf tossing was an affront to human dignity.
This order meant that other mayors were able to ban such activities in their area. It led to the end of all dwarf tossing activities and, in consequence, the dwarf in question became unemployed.
The state party argued that banning dwarf tossing violated article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966. Article 26 upholds the right to non-discrimination. The state party argued that the banning of dwarf tossing was discriminatory because only those suffering from dwarfism could take part in the event. The nature of the event meant that it did not concern those who did not suffer from dwarfism or apparent physical differences. Therefore the underlying reasons to uphold human dignity were legitimate.
The counsel of the respondent accused the state party of being influenced by the previous orders made by the Council of State which permitted banning dwarf events. Their main argument however was the issue of employment. The counsel argued that being deprived of the right to employment was the same as being deprived of the right to dignity.
Using article 26, the committee observed that ‘differentiation constitutes discrimination when it is not based on objective and reasonable grounds.’ In this case the differentiation between dwarfs and those who do not suffer from dwarfism is based on objective reasoning and it is not discriminatory in its purpose. The committee noted that the state had illustrated that this activity was ‘necessary to protect public order’, it did not amount to ‘abusive measures’ that had been alleged by the respondent.
This case illustrates a conflict between abstract human rights and the extent that they can be adapted to modern issues. The principles of international human rights dictate that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. If this is the case, then it can be stated that dwarfs are just as equal as those who do not suffer from dwarfism. Therefore, they can be afforded the same international human rights and this includes the right to employment. If dwarfs consider dwarf tossing to be a source of employment, then they should be able to engage in the activity. In addition this is in accordance with the right to liberty; dwarfs should be permitted to engage in dwarf tossing if they wish.
Furthermore, international human rights are based on a further notion that all human beings are endowed with reason and conscience. Being a dwarf obviously does not affect the capacity for reason or conscience, therefore dwarfs are able to make rationale decisions. Using reason and conscience they are able to make the decision of whether they would like to take part in the activity of dwarf tossing at their own will. The ban on dwarf tossing may be said to be depriving them of their right to choose for themselves.
The counter argument is the possibility of opening the floodgates to exploitation. Exploitation is where someone or something is treated cruelly and inhumanely against their will. In this case, dwarfs are being used as a form of entertainment for the benefit of an audience and may be pressured into doing so, or not have a choice as they cannot find other means of employment.
Furthermore, although the dwarfs are wearing protective clothing, the event has a heavy physical burden on the person being thrown. If done over a period of time, the dwarf will most likely incur serious injuries and, the physical burden may have long term medical implications, not to mention the fact that dwarfs already have health implications from birth. If a dwarf was to suffer serious medical injuries or even die, it presents the issue of whether this is manslaughter or murder and, if so, who would be responsible?
The cases detailed above indicate that international and domestic law are reluctant about legalising dwarf tossing at any point in the future. The moral implications outweigh the individual rights of dwarfs to be able to choose to take part in the activity.