In 1962, Adlai Stevenson II, a Unitarian and a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the presidency of John F. Kennedy, persuaded the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that the newly established UUA needed to engage with the UN.
The UUA adopted resolutions at its first General Assembly and opened an office at the UN with the support of Community Church in New York City.
For sixty years, the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations (UU@UN) has remained active with a strong commitment to promoting international peace, justice, and the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
After a long career in diplomacy, Bruce Knotts assumed leadership of the UU@UN in 2008. For twenty-three years, he worked for the US Department of State with assignments in Greece, Zambia, the Office of Central American Affairs, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, and the Bureau of International Organizations.
Knotts is joining UU World as our new international affairs columnist.
- What prompted your shift from government work to a job as an activist?
- I was the Regional Refugee Coordinator for West Africa, monitoring and evaluating U.S.-funded NGOs working with refugees. I was impressed with their work and decided that I’d want to lead an NGO when I retired.
- And how did you find the Unitarian Universalists?
- I wasn’t a Unitarian, but in my search for a spiritual home, my husband, Isaac, and I became UUs in 2005. Three years later, searching for opportunities, I went through a series of interviews to get the job of director of Action Against Hunger in Malawi. The final interview was in Madrid, Spain. I flew home and told my husband that we were going to Malawi. He said he didn’t want to go because there was nothing there for him to do. So I asked him why he didn’t say anything over the many weeks of interviews. He said, “I didn’t think you’d actually get the job.” I responded that he didn’t have much faith in me. We had words. Then I came home one day and said, there’s a job offer to be the executive director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office in New York City. The only bit he heard was New York City, and he said, “Oh, yes! Please, please apply!” I did and got the job.
- In its history, the UN and the UU@UN have had many challenging moments, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or the Iraq War of 2003–2011. What is the most difficult situation we are confronting now?
- Now we are engaged with the response to the global pandemic, climate change, and threats of war in both Europe and Asia. We play an essential role there. The UU@UN office has consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at the UN, which has the UN General Assembly’s overall authority and coordinates the UN’s economic and social work. We also have affiliation with the UN Department of Global Communications, which promotes the UN and UN programs, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Finally, we have status with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which allows us to send official observer delegations to UN Climate Conferences. We have sent [people] to nearly all the Climate Conferences since the 2009 conference in Copenhagen up to the 2021 conference in Glasgow.
- Unitarian Universalists were heavily invested in the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). Still, the results were far from what the planet needs and the environmental movement demands.
- We worked with the UUA, UU Service Committee, the UU Ministry for Earth, and other civil society partners to push the conference into more productive directions than would have been the case without our participation. Among the progress gained at Glasgow was the first-ever official mention of the danger posed by fossil fuels and a statement that we must quickly reduce the use of coal. The conference also determined that the climate crisis was too urgent to wait years for the next meeting, so the Conference of Parties (COP) will meet in Egypt in November this year. These were hard-fought battles, and we wanted better outcomes, but had we not been present with our partners, the results would have been much worse.
- What do you think is your major success?
- When I arrived as director of the UU@UN I set my mission to establish sexual orientation/gender identity human rights as a leading issue of concern at the UN. As a newly arrived civil society advocate, I was looked at with skepticism and suspicion. Over time, many helped and guided me to establish LGBTQI+ human rights as a top issue at the UN. That is my greatest success. The challenge is to do this over and over again with the other compelling issues promoted by the UUA.
- In light of the Unitarian Universalist movement’s institutional change today, how have the UU@UN priorities shifted?
The UU@UN mirrors changes at the UUA, and in some cases, it anticipates them. In 2015, we Unitarian Universalists convinced the UN to declare a UN decade of people of African descent. We launched the decade with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with speakers such as Harry Belafonte, Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter), the parents of Tamir Rice, and many more. I was determined that the event not just celebrate people of African descent but also attacks structural racism. There were 500 live attendees, and it was broadcast worldwide on UN WebTV. We continue our work to end white supremacy, male supremacy, Christian supremacy, language supremacy, and all supremacies.