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Human Rights

The legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and our collective responsibility

COMMENT Isabelle Zundel 30 September 2020

It is a major challenge to introduce the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was way more than an American jurist. She was the second woman serving the Supreme Court. She is an idol for humans all over the world through her determined, lifelong campaign for women’s rights. Her death does not only give us the opportunity to reflect on an extraordinary person and the women’s movement in the United States. Moreover, her death gives cause to reflect on social injustices and related political developments in the United States. Her unavoidable replacement in the Supreme Court will point the way forward – which is expected with anticipation by some but can only be seen with concern from a human rights perspective.

Ginsburg’s extraordinary campaign for women’s rights was characterised by determination, stamina and strength. She had inter alia a bearing effect on the progressive elimination of laws which discriminate on the basis of sex as well as the liberalisation of abortion rights. Just one example is the case of Susan Struck[1], who was serving for the US Air Force as nurse. In 1970 she was declared unfit for service because of her pregnancy. In a nutshell, the Air Force made Struck as well as many other women decide between their job and pregnancy. Ginsburg became Struck’s lawyer and their appeal was accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though the Air Force changed hereupon their policy, on advice of their lawyers, and thus rendered the court case, it remained one of the milestones of Ginsburg’s gender equality fight. The case lines up alongside landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court as Roe v. Wade (1973)[2].

To this day, women still do not enjoy legal and de facto equality worldwide. The so-called global gender gap can be seen among other things in the women’s average earnings in comparison to those of men or the disproportionate takeover of unpaid tasks in the household and in care of women.[3] Ginsburg has fought for gender equality in line with many other women and it is our duty to continue this legacy.

However, Ginsburg’s campaign was not limited to women’s rights only, but she has instead also championed the rights of other minorities and marginalised groups. And we too must have a broad and open view of the needs of our time: In the time of a global pandemic and the globally growing “Black Lives Matter” movement, inequalities become more visible. Take for example sexually or gender non-conforming persons, who constitute the probably most controversial category of human rights. All over the world, LGBTQI+ communities lack adequate recognition of their rights.[4] In more than half of the 54 African countries homosexuality is outlawed.[5] Northern Nigeria, where sharia law applies, is one of several places in the world where the death penalty for same-sex sexual activities is ordered. Apart from the criminalisation of same-sex sexual conducts in some parts of the world, sexually and gender non-conforming persons worldwide have to struggle with discrimination that is reflected in various areas of life and legal relationships. Examples of this are access to health care, which is now further exacerbated during the COVID 19 pandemic, or the self-determination in family law to which other persons are entitled with regard to their partnership and the founding of a family.

Arguments against the protection of sexually and gender non-conforming persons are regularly put forward,[6] even if the validity is regularly limited. However, this is irrelevant if we follow the elementary but equally powerful human rights approach. Art. I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.[7] International human rights law leaves no doubt that all humans are equal before the law “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”[8].

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like many other human rights activists, has not only stood up for this principle but has dedicated her life to the realisation of it. Beyond that and this is crucial, Ginsburg’s dedication obligates us to rethink the position we take in this world and our community. She has explicitly called on us to: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. And in response we have to ask ourselves: How can we contribute to a more equal world? Are we contributing at all?

This fight – and admittedly it comes with resistance – depends on each of us and there are many ways to become active. There is not only need for adequate legal recognition of social realities and equal protection of all humans but also for societal change. And all of us can make social change happen on a small scale. For instance, we can start in our own communities by creating awareness within our families and our social environment, consuming more diverse literature, using gender neutral and non-racist language, openly addressing inequalities and discrimination and much more.

Do you still scruple that this claim is too broad for you as one person? First of all, you alone do not have to change the world overnight. We are in a social process that we can, must and will help to shape. Secondly, coming back again to Ruth Bader Ginsburg who came from a Jewish immigrant family, grew up in one of the poorer parts of Brooklyn, New York and was one of the very rare female law students at Harvard Law School in 1956. She has given herself a voice without asking for it. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not only a role model for lawyers all over the world. Not only for women. Not only for US citizens. But for everyone.

Isabelle Zundel is a research assistant at the Chair of African Legal Studies at University of Bayreuth


[1] https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1617&context=casefiles (accessed on 21 September 200)

[2] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/410/113/ (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[3] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[4] http://internap.hrw.org/features/features/lgbt_laws/ (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[5] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/lgbti-lgbt-gay-human-rights-law-africa-uganda-

kenya-nigeria-cameroon (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[6] For example (as answer to the Yogyakarta Principles) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1551652 (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[7] https://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf (accessed on 21 September 2020)

[8] Art II of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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