During a long and distinguished U.S. diplomatic career, Bruce Knotts has served in Greece, Sudan, Kenya, India, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Zambia, and the Gambia. And now he serves the cause of Unitarian Universalism worldwide as head of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO). Knotts became the UU-UNO’s executive director in January 2008. His chief areas of focus are human rights, with an emphasis on women’s rights and GLBT rights; ending genocide, particularly in Darfur; and working for peace.
Knotts, who retired from the United States Foreign Service in 2007 after 23 years of service, was the executive director of the Literacy Council of Prince George’s County in Maryland when he happened upon the notice advertising the executive director’s job at the UU-UNO in New York City. “That was my three loves in one sentence!” he said. “I love New York, I respect and love the UN and the work it does, and I adore my church.” Knotts has been a UU for three years, first as a member of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., and now as a member of All Souls Church in New York.
Knotts was born and raised in California. His interest in the world beyond U.S. borders started with a stamp collection, when he would research all of the countries represented in his collection. He also had an uncle who was a pilot for Pan-American Airways who would send him postcards from exotic places, he said. Openly gay, Knotts told his parents that he was in love with a man he met in college. “They were very concerned,” he said. In an attempt to abort the relationship, they sent him to Germany for a year. Thus began Knotts’ fascination with life abroad. “I actually cried when I arrived in New York on my way home from Germany,” Knotts said, “because I thought I’d never have the money to go overseas again.”
That was not to happen. Knotts joined the Peace Corps in 1972 and spent three years in Ethiopia. He spent the next twelve years teaching English as a second language to students in California and Somalia, and to Saudi soldiers in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In 1984 he joined the Foreign Service and was sent to Greece.
The job that best prepared him for his current position with UU-UNO was one of his last postings in the Foreign Service, to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. There he served as the regional refugee coordinator for West Africa. “Primarily I focused on the refugee situation stemming from the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone,” he said. “We had quite a refugee population stretched all over West Africa. I spent a lot of time traveling from one country to another visiting refugee camps and on UN helicopters. It was my closest experience with the UN at work.” Knotts also had the opportunity to work with the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.
In his 23-year-long career with the Department of State, Knotts got to witness terrorism first hand. In 1998, he survived the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. After the bombing his task was to set up a temporary morgue at the embassy warehouse and find the bodies of his dead colleagues. “We persuaded a vegetable exporter to lend us his 40 foot refrigerated container, which we moved into the embassy warehouse compound. . . . Then we went to the morgues to look for our dead. I feel convinced that I saw all 250 dead bodies from the Nairobi bombing,” he said. Knotts was given citations for heroism and meritorious honor by the Department of State.
One of Knotts’ goals is to make more UUs familiar with the existence of the UU-UNO. “We suffer from anonymity,” he said. “People really don’t know us and that’s partly because a lot of people don’t know the UN.”
Knotts believes that the UN has been portrayed in the United States as an ineffective organization. “That is not the perception of the UN in most of the rest of the world,” he said. “Part of what I want UUs to know is that the UN is an important and effective organization for peace and development and humanitarian aid.”
The Rev. Rob Hardies, minister of All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., believes that Knotts has much to offer in his new position. “Bruce’s experience in the Foreign Service at the State Department is going to be a wonderful resource,” he said. “It’s going to raise the profile of the office.”
Knotts’ respect for the UN is based on his own experience. “I think the UN operation in Sierra Leone was one of the most successful it had,” he said. “When I first went there in 2000, 95 percent of the country was held by rebels. . . . The UN played a huge role in Sierra Leone in creating the conditions for peace and then rebuilding the country when the war was over.” He also praised the UN for its role in providing relief after the 2004 pan-Asian tsunami.
The UU-UNO was officially founded in 1962 at the urging of US ambassador to the UN Adlai Stephenson, himself a Unitarian. In a letter to UUA president Dana Greeley, he wrote, “It is no longer possible—if it ever was—for local communities to be more secure than the surrounding world. Our ultimate security therefore lies in making the world more and more into a community.”
The UU-UNO is a non-governmental organization (NGO) with consultative status at the United Nations Department of Public Information. The UU-UNO uses its consultative status on behalf of the UUA in the United Nations Economic and Social Council, an organization offering a forum for the discussion of economic and social issues. The office collaborates with other UN NGOs on particular issues, such as ending the genocide in Darfur.
Knotts was recently part of a delegation including members of Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, the International Crisis Group, and the International Rescue Committee that visited the Libyan mission to talk about the situation in Darfur. Libya is a temporary member of the UN Security Council until 2009. The group lobbied the Libyan ambassador about protection for civilians, especially women and children, as well as the need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. “He was largely in agreement with us,” Knotts said. His only objection was that “he felt the international community had been too critical of the Sudanese government and not critical enough of the rebels who had also committed atrocities.”
The UU-UNO organizes annual intergenerational seminars in New York. The next, entitled “Picking up the Pieces: Building a Culture of Peace” will be held April 3-5. The seminar features speakers already involved in peacemaking and will provide opportunities for participants to examine case studies and to look at the role their UU faith plays in building a culture of peace.