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The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Commitment to Internationalism

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on September 25 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations. Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

Portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Former Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on September 18, 2020 at the age of 87.

Together with the rest of the world, we mourn the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She fought for the equality of women, people of color, LGBT people, and for equal justice for all everywhere. She is a model for how to apply global solutions to national and local problems.

RBG believed in the importance of the United Nations. As an 8th grader in Brooklyn, New York in 1946, she wrote an article for the school newspaper on the five most important documents of law in history, beginning with the Ten Commandments and ending with the UN Charter.

She wrote the UN Charter was the "only way to secure the world against future wars and maintain an everlasting peace." In the same year she wrote in another article:

"[W]e must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet in good faith."

As she was building the dynamic ACLU Women’s Rights Project in the 1970s, RBG immersed herself not only in U.S. law, practice, and custom, but she also examined the law in other countries and consulted sources in other languages.

Americans face similar criminal justice challenges today and we should look at legal discussions and practices at the UN and globally.

Justice Ginsburg believed, as I do, that some of the wisdom we need to solve our problems resides outside the United States and in languages other than English.

RBG studied Swedish gender laws in detail, consulting laws and opinions written in Swedish—using translations, but also absorbing some of the Swedish language. She also consulted UN conventions and discussions on gender, race, and equality.

As a Supreme Court Justice, she and other justices visited the equivalent courts in Canada, Egypt, Israel, Tunisia, the European Court of Justice, and more. RBG noted that Canada’s Supreme Court had a woman as its chief justice—Beverley Marian McLachlin served in that role from 2000-2017—and that many countries had more women in their justice systems than the U.S. did.

Many of the answers to our own criminal justice problems can come from the United Nations and from other countries. In Germany, Ireland, and elsewhere, all citizens have the right to vote regardless of their incarceration status. Portugal has decriminalized drug use and sales, making the issue of drug addiction a healthcare concern instead of a criminal justice issue. The United Nations has long advocated for the abolition of the death penalty.   

RBG saw criminal justice as a global conversation that includes all nations and international organizations such as the United Nations. I hope you will engage issues in the same global fashion. We will miss our dear champion, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...

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