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Complicating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy Through the Lens of White Feminism, Race, and Indigenous Rights

By Rowena Kosher, Co-Editor of RightsViews and student at Columbia’s School of General Studies majoring in Human Rights with a Concentration in Gender & Sexuality Studies.

On September 18, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87, after serving on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) for 27 years. Ginsburg, popularly known as RBG, and in her most recent fame “The Notorious RBG,” is a feminist icon. This is for good reason—she accomplished a number of “firsts” in her lifetime and her work contributed to groundbreaking progressive legal changes, particularly regarding gender. 

Flowers on the steps of the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg graduated top of her Columbia class and became the first woman to be appointed as full professor at Columbia Law. As Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she litigated over 300 sex discrimination cases before working on the D.C Court of Appeals for 13 years. Ginsburg joined SCOTUS in 1993, where she served until her death. During this time, Ginsburg rose to mainstream fame, becoming well known for her blistering dissents and constant advocacy as one of the vital liberal justices on an increasingly conservative court.

Following Ginsburg’s death, the media blew up with condolences, concerns about political implications, and articles commending Ginsburg on the successes of her career. Yet in this barrage of (justifiable) abounding praise, I couldn’t help but think about what happens when a person, a human, becomes an icon so coopted by a movement that her humanity becomes erased. In truth, Ginsburg was a person, and people are not perfect. What do we lose in this black and white thinking about legacy?

A caveat: in this article, I will offer a critical overview of Ginsburg’s legacy. In doing so, I do not intend to discredit or ignore the vastly important implications of the decisions that she made over the course of her career, particularly for women. Rather, I hope that this article presents the opportunity to, amongst our mourning and praise, also think deeply about who benefits from RBG’s legacy, and more importantly who falls to the wayside: namely poor, queer, Black and Indigenous People.

 

Ginsburg’s Feminism was for White Women

In 2013, a NYC student started a Tumblr account entitled “The Notorious RBG,” beginning the memeification of Justice Ginsburg as a white feminist icon. // Creative Commons

Ginsburg was director of the Women’s Rights Project during the height of second wave feminism, a time characterized by calls for women’s equality to men. Also known as “sameness feminism”, this camp challenges anything that could be perceived as treating women as the “lesser sex.” Ginsburg based her entire legal career on reasoning that adhered to this model. Her cases on sex discrimination followed a formula: anything that appeared to be treating a member of one sex differently from a member of the other sex was either sex discrimination, or in the case of her 1 in 4 male plaintiffs, reverse sex discrimination. 

Although on face value, this version of feminism intuitively makes sense, its historical context and practical application mean that in practice, it only really benefits one group: white women. Of which, of course, Ginsburg herself was a member.

As Muqing Zhang points out in a 2019 article in The Establishment, equality to men is an easy point of view for an upper-middle class white woman to have because sexism is often the only form of discrimination that white women face. Yet, maintaining a sameness-based sex equality argument obscures, and even worsens, the experiences of, for instance, poor, Black, queer women, whose marginalizations are plural. In fact, it was the very prominence of the consistent exclusions resulting from a sameness feminist model that led to the development of Critical Race Theory.

Ginsburg’s appeal to white feminism is clear and with this in mind, Ginsburg’s popularized successes in court take on a different tone. Zhang argues that Ginsburg’s formulaic equality framework resulted in the consistent and lasting elimination of any preferential policies towards women—results that were successes for only white women. Cases such as Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975) and Califano v Goldfarb (1977), ended policies on federal aid that benefited women specifically. Although aligned with a white feminist model of success, eliminating preferential policies leaves the poor, queer, non-white women who rely on these programs stranded. The results of these decisions are not racist in intent, but they do say something about the challenges of her positionality as a wealthy white woman. Zhang writes, “Although it may not have been Ginsburg’s explicit intent to harm the most marginalized of women, part of the insidiousness of white feminism is that it convinces its believers that the white woman’s experience is the universal experience for all women…in the end, it is not the intent, but the devastating impact that matters.”

On Race:

Ginsburg was not entirely oblivious about the challenges that she did not herself face. At her swearing-in ceremony in 1993, Ginsburg said: “A system of justice will be the richer for diversity of background and experience.” In 1994, Jerome McCristal Culp Jr. wrote and published “An Open Letter From One Black Scholar to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in which he reminded Ginsburg that diversity on the court does not automatically ensure that diverse voices are heard before the court. Further, understanding one form of oppression (gender) does not mean that one can or will understand another (race), or their intersections. “Privilege does not mean that the holder cannot hear the voices of the oppressed,” writes Culp Jr., “but it does suggest that one possessing such privilege ought to take care to examine where she is in relation to others and where she and others are going.” As with Crenshaw, Culp Jr. cites the challenges of applying an equality model to racial settings. The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment is a model that at best maintains the status quo, and at worst reinforces existing racialized inequalities.

When Ginsburg engaged with issues of race directly, it came across with mixed messages. One such example is her hiring record. At her confirmation hearing, Senator Hatch questioned Ginsburg about the fact that over her 13 years at the DC District Court, out of 57 employees, not a single one was Black. Ginsburg replied by saying, “I am going to try harder, and if you confirm me for this job, my attractiveness to Black candidates is going to improve.” Yet, over her 27 years on SCOTUS, she only hired one Black law clerk. Granted, law clerks for SCOTUS justices are notoriously white across the board—85% since 2005. However, a systemic problem is not an excuse for a lack of revision of hiring practices, and it is still disappointing to read of Ginsburg’s poor record.

Ginsburg made headlines again in 2016 for her insensitive response to Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the National Anthem as a protest to police violence and in support of Black Lives Matter. In the original interview, Ginsburg calls the protest “dumb and disrespectful” and compares it to flag burning. Ginsburg quickly apologized after massive media blowback. Although it appears that Ginsburg was taking issue more with the action of political speech that Kaepernick chose to take than with the cause he was protesting for, it’s frankly surprising that she was “unaware” of the nature of these protests and further, demonstrates a tendency in the legal world to interpret political actions along a hierarchy of value. Progressive values are structured to favor some political spaces (like campaigns) over others (like sports). And the very spaces that are favored are the spaces that are already structurally exclusionary to BIPOC.  Where is the space for voices against racism when the easily accessible platforms to denounce it are valued less than the institutions that gatekeep? 

In her world in the courtroom, Ginsburg didn’t stand out on cases related to race but generally sided with the other liberal justices in condemning white supremacy & racial discrimination. After all, the civil rights framework that challenges racism is the same as her well-worn equality framework for gender discrimination. For example, as an attorney, Ginsburg credited the work of Black queer civil rights attorney Pauli Murray in Reed v Reed. She authored an amicus brief for Coker v Georgia writing, “the death penalty for rape is an outgrowth of both male patriarchal views of women…and gross racial injustice created in part out of that patriarchal foundation.” Ginsburg also clearly addressed the intersections of voter suppression and race in her famous dissent, Shelby County v Holder.

She ruled in favor of several important cases regarding the rights of the incarcerated, although it is not clear that these decisions were based on her awareness of mass incarceration as an issue with disproportionate effect on BIPOC. Yet Ginsburg also supported increased barriers for prisoners seeking rights in federal courts and joined the majority in Overton v Bazzetta, upholding draconian visiting restrictions. Definitely a mixed record.

One interesting case study of Ginsburg’s lack of engagement with race is her Utah v Strieff (2016) dissent. An equal protection 4th amendment case about warrants and unlawful stops, Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a harsh dissent critiquing the ruling, which included what is now colloquially referred to as Sotomayor’s “Black Lives Matter Manifesto.” In this condemnation that also cited Black scholars and activists Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sotomayor wrote “[the decision] implies that you are not a citizen of democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.” Ginsburg signed onto all of Sotomayor’s dissent except this section. Ginsburg ruled on the liberal side, and yet stopped herself at Sotomayor’s explicit discussion of race. Why did she pass up an opportunity to use her platform as a prominent white woman in power to express solidarity with BIPOC?

Indigenous Rights: RBG’s Biggest Regret

Ginsburg accepting her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. // Creative Commons

When it comes to Indigenous Rights, Ginsburg likewise does not have a strong record of support. The legal field itself contributes to this. US law is based primarily on individual rights, a reflection of Western neoliberalism. This comes in conflict when dealing with Indigenous Peoples, whose rights are collective. Further, education about Indian Law is poor across law schools; only a few states include it on their Bar examinations. As a whole, the American legal system is rooted in the history of systemic genocide, exclusion, and erasure of American Indians. Given this, it is upsetting but not surprising that in her confirmation hearing, Ginsburg stated that “I cannot pretend to any special knowledge in this area of the law.” The Marshall Project does note that Ginsburg’s decisions on cases regarding Indian Law improved over the course of her time on the court. For example, her very last Indian Law case, McGirt v Oklahoma (2020), importantly ruled that a majority of Eastern Oklahoma is Indian Country—a landmark recognition of tribal sovereignty. However, backtracking to some of her earlier decisions, we see a number of cases where Ginsburg restricted Indian rights, such as US v Navajo Nation (2002) and Strate v A-1 Contractors (1997). Perhaps the most notorious, however, is City of Sherrill v Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

Ginsburg authored the 8-1 2005 Sherrill decision, ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation regarding their claim to tax-exempt status on traditional Oneida land which NY had acquired as the result of an illegal transaction in the 19th century, and then was repurchased by the Oneida Nation in 1997-98. Ginsburg’s reasoning rested on longstanding racist legal doctrines such as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Ginsburg argued that the “longstanding Non-Indian character” of the land and the Oneida’s delay in seeking relief kept the tribe from “rekindling the embers of sovereignty that long ago grew cold.” This decision was heavily and rightfully critiqued.

It is clear that Ginsburg took these critiques to heart. In May of 2020 she confided in some of her clerks and peers that Sherrill was the single decision in her time at the court that she regretted the most. She paired this with a declaration of hope that the next SCOTUS nominee be a Native American woman.

What does all of this tell us? It tells us that Ginsburg made countless valuable progressive, life changing decisions that benefitted hundreds of thousands of Americans. It tells us she has the capacity for growth and critical thought and the humility to apologize. It also tells us that she made some really bad decisions, too. In other words, she wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. Legacies are complicated, and the legacy of a judge on SCOTUS even more so. 

We experience a general failure to recognize Ginsburg’s complicated history because she has been elevated to icon status in the pervasive white feminist narrative. As Si’iyda Shabazz writes, “painting her as a superhero on a pedestal” by the ever-impervious white feminist umbrella means we forget (or are prevented from realizing) that at the end of the day, RBG made mistakes. Just as her successes deserve to be shouted from the rooftops, the less rosy side of her record ought to be available for critique. We can only become better citizens, better feminists, and better advocates by knowing that mourning and critical analysis are not mutually exclusive, and in fact can strengthen each other and provoke us to turn Ginsburg’s legacy into justice-oriented action.

The Kashmir Issue: How “Miller (2)” Must Inspire the Indian Supreme Court

By guest contributors Anmol Jain and Prannv Dhawan. Jain is  a penultimate-year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur, India. He takes an active interest in the study of constitutional law and judicial approaches to human rights. Dhawan is a third-year law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India. He is interested in policy and legal research in the domains of public law, human rights and climate justice. 

India’s constitutional democracy is backsliding. Speaking at a rally during the ‘National Register of Citizens (NRC) Seminar’ recently, the Home Minister advocated for the re-introduction of the much contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, which unconstitutionally aims to provide easier citizenship requirements for non-Muslim refugees. Noted scholars have argued that previously, the National Register of Citizens exercised in Assam and now, the dilution of Article 370 of the Constitution that provides special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, are arguably unconstitutional attempts to further the political vendetta of the ruling party which has the capability to downgrade the credentials of Indian federal and democratic ideals. Amid global critique of the functioning of the executive branch in India, the latest coming from the Bar Council and Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, United Nations and the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the attitude of the Supreme Court towards the Executive excesses has also come under the radar (see here, here, here and here). We attempt to analyse it hereunder by specifically focusing on the Jammu and Kashmir issue pertaining to dilution of Article 370.  

To briefly comment on this provision, Article 370 prescribed a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by limiting direct application of the Indian Constitution to the State. Provisions of the Indian Constitution could be applied only through Presidential Orders issued upon the concurrence of the State Government. It further provided that the President may cease or modify the operation of Article 370 after taking recommendations from the Constituent Assembly of the State. On August 5, 2019 a Presidential Order was passed which inserted an additional clause in Article 367, a provision that guides the interpretation of the Constitution, to indirectly amend Article 370. It stated that the expression ‘Constituent Assembly of the State’ used in Article 370, must be read as ‘Legislative Assembly of the State’. Given the fact that the state was functioning under President’s rule through the Centre-appointed Governor at the relevant time, indicating the absence of a legislative body, it became a butterwalk for the Central Government then to modify Article 370 to such an extent that it virtually dilutes it. 

Many petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging this dilution. This issue involves the determination of limits on the Executive functions in India, which is presently functioning in an ultra-strong manner with a combined strength of the whip. It involves the question of constitutional federalism and the survival of India’s democracy as envisaged by our founding fathers. Understandably, nothing could be more important in the existing backlog of the Supreme Court than securing the identity of our Constitution, which promises to India citizens and the state governments a Government limited by the Rule of Law and ideals of federalism, respectively. However, while hearing the matter on September 30th, the Supreme Court hearing was delayed, with representatives noting: ‘We do not have time to hear so many matters. We have a Constitution bench case (Ayodhya dispute) to hear.’ 

The issue of backlog in the Supreme Court of India isn’t new – it has been continuing for many years (for a more detailed discussion, see here). Given that the Court today is suffering from a high backlog of cases, an agenda of judicial reforms, as Justice Chandrachud recently articulated, must include the proposal to reduce the high number of appeals of civil or criminal suits and to streamline special leave jurisdiction. Another option for reducing the caseload burden could also be, as is continuously being emphasized by the Vice President, the establishment of multiple benches of the Supreme Court in different regions in India. However, despite the way in which this manifests, under no circumstances can the Supreme Court continue to be excused from efficaciously fulfilling its constitutional responsibility to hear all cases that come before it.

When the Kashmir petitions were placed before a Constitution bench on October 1, the Court again failed to adequately fulfil its role as the protector of liberty by further delaying the hearing. In addition to this, if the bizarre habeas corpus orders, as critically analyzed elsewhere, in September is anything to go by, the Supreme Court has uncritically accepted the Government’s disproportionate claims about national security that seem to have taken precedence over the ideals of civil liberties. The idea of a nation represented by a focus point – dilution of Article 370 to achieve greater unity, as claimed by the Central Government – has overpowered the individual dignity and identity of its constituents, which marks a move from a democratic government set-up towards right-wing populism. Such judicial evasion in the guise of national security in these crucial cases of rights abuses has been criticized by constitutional commentators by juxtaposing it with the United Kingdom Supreme Court’s swift adjudication in R (on the application of Miller) v. The Prime Minister [“Miller (2)”], a case involving breach of constitutional procedures and principles in the prorogation of the Parliament.

The Indian Supreme Court’s core constitutional role is to protect the fundamental rights of  citizens. The efficacious hearing and adjudication of the petitions against civil rights restrictions, house arrests, and communications blackouts as well as the constitutionality of the Parliament’s legislation are critical in the current times of constitutional backsliding. Rights’ adjudication ought to be placed on  a higher pedestal than smaller, less crucial issues such as a recent case the Court chose to hear: the determination of legal title in a religiously charged land dispute matter. This is especially relevant at a stage in the Indian constitutional process where safeguarding the rights to dignity and life has been understood to be at the pinnacle of public duties. As has been enunciated in multiple golden triangle cases, these rights are interpreted broadly and for the betterment of Indian citizens. Further, just recently, the Kerala High Court held that even the access to internet is a fundamental right to be protected. 

Although the Supreme Court’s wide jurisdiction and liberal interpretation of its powers creates significant  institutional constraints, this cannot be an alibi for not fulfilling the fundamental constitutional role of the court. If the Court is indeed the most powerful apex judicial body in the world, then it must tirelessly commit itself to secure the civil-political-socio-economic rights in a timely fashion. While the stellar institutional contributions of the Supreme Court to the cause of human rights and citizen’s entitlements cannot be denied, we contend that it is this very expansion of its constitutional role (perhaps self-assumed), that obligates the Court to seriously and appropriately adjudicate on constitutional challenges and petitions that seek its rescue to restore fundamental rights. It is important to acknowledge that delay in justice delivery is an absolute denial of those exact rights. The court’s present cavalier approach to collective punishment of millions of citizens without judicious and comprehensive ascertainment of existence of reasonable grounds based on the doctrine of proportionality is unfortunate and needs to be critiqued, rather than defended. Otherwise, it shall surely create an ironical situation where the ‘most powerful court’ is continuously failing to fulfil its constitutional duties, perhaps under executive influence. 

Earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court upheld the ideals of parliamentary deliberation and accountability of the executive to the Parliament by declaring Boris Johnson’s 5-week prorogation of parliament null. This is similar to the current Indian situation. It would not be wrong to argue that diluting Article 370 at a time when the State of Jammu and Kashmir is functioning under the President’s rule and substituting the views of the Governor with the views of the State Assembly is equally ‘unlawful and thus null and of no effect.’ Any further delay in action by the Supreme Court comes with a high possibility of material alteration in the functioning of Jammu and Kashmir under the amended scheme of the Constitution, the reversal of which, if the Court decides so, might bear heavy costs.  

Demonstration of the Court’s independent strength is not only lacking in the realm of highly staked political matters, but it also extends to judicial appointments as well, as witnessed in the recent controversies involving Justice Akil Kureshi and Justice Tahilramani. Commenting on the manner in which the Supreme Court has handled the petitions arising out of the recent controversy involving Article 370 of the Constitution, the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its special status, constitutional commentator Gautam Bhatia has argued that an emergency-era weak judiciary has reappeared, though in a different form this time, which has failed the fundamental principles of Indian constitutional democracy. 

In a recent judgment in Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association v. Union of India (2015), the Supreme Court highlighted the virtues of judicial independence and held that it is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution,  again highlighted at another time soon after. Concerns regarding isolating the judicial body from the other organs of the Government have been institutionally studied by the International Commission of Jurists and under multiple international documents. However, the Supreme Court of India seems to have taken a blind eye towards itself even while it advocates internationally for  recognized jurisprudence of courts elsewhere.  

In the times when the Executive’s imposition of an information blackout and civil rights restrictions in Kashmir have continued for over 60 days and  blatantly unconstitutional legislations like the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are sought to be passed,  the judiciary must rise to the desired standards and stand as an independent protector of the Constitution. We believe that the wide jurisdiction and the high number of cases that the Court handles weakens it. It is not impossible to achieve more balance; it has been done in the past. Justice H.R. Khanna, for example, is a judge who stood undaunted and ruled against executive excesses to uphold constitutional promise in their cases. The time has come that the present Court proves it is indeed the Constitution’s sentinel on the qui vive.

When the Wave Comes: Climate Change, Immigration, and International Law

“Climate refugees” will be the new face of immigration. Why isn’t international law prepared? This story is Part I of a two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law.

By Genevieve Zingg, editor of RightsViews and an M.A. student in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University

“Climate refugees”— broadly defined as people displaced across borders because of the sudden or long-term effects of climate change—are not a future phenomenon. Climate migration is already happening in a growing number of countries around the world: the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that the impact and threat of climate-related hazards displaced an average of 21.5 million people annually between 2008 and 2015. In 2016 alone, climate and weather-related disasters displaced some 23.5 million people.

Floods, droughts and storms are the primary causes of climate-related displacement. In the coming decades, severe droughts are expected to plague northern Mexico, with some studies predicting up to 6.7 million people migrating to the U.S. by 2080 as a result. High-intensity storms like cyclones have already displaced thousands from Tuvalu in the South Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and rising sea levels are projected to put Kiribati, a tiny Pacific island with the smallest carbon footprint in the world, completely under water.

A woman and child walk through Chennai, India after severe floods in December 2015. // Anindito Mukherjee // Reuters

Projections of future migration patterns expect at least 200 million citizens to flee their homelands by 2050. Further, according to a recent paper investigating the correlation between migration and significant fluctuations in temperature, asylum applications will increase by almost 200 percent by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. 

“Climate Refugees” Do Not Exist  Technically

The problem, however, is this: under international law, there is technically no such thing as a “climate refugee.” The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Additional Protocol adopted in 1967 define the term “refugee” as “any person outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In other words, under the current framework, the millions of people soon to be displaced due to climate-related impacts will have no legal grounds to seek international protection.  

 


“It’s interesting how often the impact of climate change is illustrated by talking about the problems polar bears will face, rather than the much greater number of poor people who will die unless significant investments are made to help them.” 

Bill Gates, 2009

According to Pierre Bertrand, former Director of UNHCR in New York and Lead Rapporteur to the UN Global Migration Group, the “climate refugees” phenomenon is increasingly visible in the public discourse, despite its lack of legal status. “People are on the move for many compelling reasons. But what is more compelling than people whose country disappears?” he said.

The 2016 Paris Agreement, a landmark international climate agreement signed by 195 countries, failed to address climate-related disasters as a basis for asylum despite significant lobbying by international NGOs.

Bertrand says this was due to fears surrounding amending or expanding the definition set out by the 1951 Convention. “The thinking in UNHCR is that if we put this up for revision and discussion to adapt the Convention to contemporary forms of forced movement, it will risk downgrading the standards of the Convention itself,” he said. 

UNHCR// Ibarra Sánchez

Citing the current political mood towards migration, Bertrand highlighted the risk that opening the Convention to review may carry.

“Countries in the North and in Europe want to review the Convention to bring some limits to it, rather than improvements,” he said.

In December 2015, for example, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen suggested that the 1951 Convention might need to be renegotiated in light of the European migration crisis.

“In the discussion of migration, there is a divide between countries who export migrants, and the countries who receive them. Some are interested in how their nationals are treated in countries of transit and destination; they want the best treatment possible for their nationals,” Bertrand told RightsViews via telephone. “But then you have the elephant in the room: the countries in the north arguing that they have the competence to decide who to admit, which is a sacred principle. It remains the right of states to decide, based on the classic concept of sovereignty enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.”

He points to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers, developed in 1990 and entered into force in 2003, to illustrate his point. “This Convention has 51 ratifications, all from the South. No developed country has ever ratified it,” he said.

Walls Won’t Work: Adapting National Immigration Policies

Despite the predictions of climate-fueled migration on the horizon, American and European political leaders are currently building walls and slashing annual refugee quotas. Among the most visibly anti-migrant is the Trump administration, which in only one year cut its federal refugee program by more than half, cracked down on undocumented immigration, deployed the National Guard to the Mexican border while the president’s controversial wall remains stalled, and proposed slashing legal immigration numbers by half over the next ten years. Anti-migrant policies are hardly unique to Donald Trump and strongly correlated with the rise of far-right populist parties across the European Union. The number of border walls around the world has jumped from 15 in 1989 to 70 today.

Flooding in the Walia neighborhood of N’Djamena in Chad, October 2012, caused by the rise of the Chari and Logone rivers. // Pierre Peron // OCHA

Susan Martin, founder of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and previous executive director of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, notes that migration is a natural and effective adaptation process for environmental changes. “There needs to be preemptive action to provide legal avenues to facilitate those movements,” she said.

Some countries have already begun to adapt their immigration policies in preparation for climate migration, particularly those who have already experienced it. After a devastating earthquake in 2010 killed 300,000 Haitians and displaced more than one million, Brazil developed a policy issuing humanitarian visas and work authorizations for those arriving from the stricken nation. Argentina and Peru have implemented similar policies accounting for people affected by environmental disasters, and New Zealand recently became the first country in the world to introduce a climate refugee scheme by creating a special “refugee visa” for Pacific Islanders forced to migrate because of rising sea levels. Humanitarian visas, work authorizations, and other legal pathways are innovative policy options that states can institute even without an overarching international legal framework.

Other states, however, have responded to high rates of current asylum applications by closing existing legal avenues for climate migrants. In response to the European “refugee crisis,” for example, both Finland and Sweden— previously hailed as the only two countries in the world recognizing environmental disaster as a basis for protection— recently removed the clause from their respective immigration and asylum legislation.

Part II of the two-part series on climate change, immigration and international law coming soon.


Genevieve Zingg is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, focusing on human rights in the context of armed conflict, counterterrorism and national security. She is interested in refugees and migration, foreign policy and international politics, international criminal and humanitarian law, and intersectional issues of race and gender. She holds a B.A. (Hons.) from the University of Toronto and has professional experience working in Geneva, Athens, Paris, Brussels and Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter @GenZingg. She is editor of RightsViews.