Fighting for supremacy in the global arena

In 1962, Adlai Stevenson II, a Unitarian and United States Ambassador to the United Nations under President John F. Kennedy, persuaded the Reverend Dana McLean Greeley, first president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, that the new UUA should s engage with the UN.

The UUA passed resolutions at its first General Assembly and opened an office at the UN with the support of Community Church in New York.

For sixty years the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations ([email protected]) 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 took over the leadership of [email protected] in 2008. For twenty-three years, he worked for the US Department of State with assignments in Greece, Zambia, the Bureau Central American Affairs, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Office of International Organizations.

Knotts joins UU World as a new international affairs columnist.


What prompted you to move from working in government to working as an activist?

I was the regional refugee coordinator for West Africa, monitoring and evaluating US-funded NGOs working with refugees. I was impressed by their work and decided to run an NGO when I retired.

And how did you find the Unitarian Universalists?

I was not a Oneness, but in my search for a spiritual home, my husband, Isaac, and I became UU in 2005. Three years later, in search of opportunity, I spent a series of interviews for the position of director of Action Against Hunger in Malawi. The final interview took place in Madrid, Spain. I flew home and told my husband we were going to Malawi. He said he didn’t want to go because there was nothing to do. So I asked him why he hadn’t said anything during the many weeks of interviews. He said, “I didn’t think you would get the job. I replied that he didn’t trust me very much. We had words. Then I came home one day and said there was a job opening to be the executive director of the United Nations Unitarian Universalist Office in New York. The only song he heard was New York City, and he said, Oh yes! Please, please apply!” I did and got the job.

In their history, the UN and [email protected] have known many difficult times, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 or the Iraq War of 2003-2011. What is the most difficult situation we are currently facing?

We are now engaged in the response to the global pandemic, climate change and threats of war in Europe and Asia. We play an essential role in it. The [email protected] office has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which has the general authority of the UN General Assembly and coordinates the economic and social work of the UN. We are also affiliated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications, which promotes the United Nations and United Nations programs, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Finally, we have status with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which allows us to send official observer delegations to United Nations climate conferences. We have sent [people] at almost every climate conference from the 2009 conference in Copenhagen to the 2021 conference in Glasgow.

Unitarian Universalists have been heavily invested in the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). Yet the results fell far short of what the planet needs and the demands of the environmental movement.

We worked with the UUA, the UU Service Committee, the UU Ministry of Land and other civil society partners to push the conference in more productive directions than it would have been. the case without our participation. Among the progress made in Glasgow was the first-ever official mention of the danger posed by fossil fuels and a statement that we must rapidly 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 the Parties (COP) will meet in Egypt in November this year. These were tough battles and we wanted better results, but if we hadn’t been there with our partners, the results would have been much worse.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

When I arrived as Director of [email protected], I set out my mission to establish sexual orientation/gender identity human rights as a major concern at the UN . As a newly arrived civil society advocate, I was viewed with skepticism and suspicion. Over time, many have helped and guided me to make LGBTQI+ human rights a priority issue at the UN. It is my greatest achievement. The challenge is to do it again and again with the other pressing issues promoted by the UUA.

In light of the institutional change of the Unitarian Universalist movement today, how have [email protected] priorities changed?

The [email protected] reflects changes in the UUA, and in some cases anticipates them. In 2015, we Unitarian Universalists convinced the UN to declare a United Nations Decade for People of African Descent. We kicked off the decade with the Office of the United Nations 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 only celebrate people of African descent, but also tackle 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 supremacy.

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