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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Alumni Perspectives: Knox Thames

We interviewed Mr. Knox Thames, American University School of International Service MA '01 & AUWCL JD '01, and current Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He shares his perspective on his time at AU/WCL, and his current research focus.

Tell us a bit about your background and about your time since graduating from AU/WCL.

I recently served across two administrations as the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities at the U.S. Department of State. The first to serve in this capacity, I received a civil service appointment in September 2015 to lead State Department efforts to address the situation of religious minorities in these regions.

Starting in July 2020, I left government to embark on a book writing project based on my career experiences and joined the Institute for Global Engagement as a Senior Fellow. Also, I am a Visiting Expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Both positions are possible thanks to the support of the Templeton Religion Trust.

During my 20-year career in government, I also served at the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), AmeriCorps VISTA, and the U.S. Army War College as an Adjunct Research Professor.

How did you become interested in global affairs, religion, and human rights?

Growing up in rural Kentucky, I always had an interest in international affairs. My first job out of college was as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Atlanta, helping resettle refugees from Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia. It was an eye-opening experience, as for the first time, I had friends who had suffered unimaginable cruelty simply because they were a member of the wrong tribe, ethnicity, or faith. In response, I wanted to help the persecuted, which I also felt reflected my Christian faith. But I needed additional skills. So, I decided to move to Washington and attend WCL for its top-ranked international law program.

What is your research focus area at the U.S. Institute of Peace?

At USIP as a Visiting Expert, I contribute to the Middle East team and the Religion & Inclusive Societies team. For the Middle East team, I am developing a program called the Middle East Pluralism Project. The Middle East is the birthplace of many great religions, with a history of different faiths living side by side. Unfortunately, that tradition is under stress due to various social and cultural paradigms, harmful government policies, outmigration, and terrorist activity.

The Project will convene a series of discussions examining ways to protect pluralism in the Middle East by focusing on tolerance education, inclusive citizenship, and heritage preservation for religious minorities. For the Religion team, I am working with a colleague to establish a working group to ensure that U.S. government efforts to advance religious freedom internationally are insulated from domestic politics and remain nonpartisan in focus and effect.

Your book International Religious Freedom Advocacy, just celebrated its 11th year. What can others learn and apply to conflicts and events of the present?

I wrote the book to help human rights advocates understand how best to approach policymakers and international institutions, after seeing many NGOs struggle to engage effectively. Structured as a guidebook, it delves into the tangled web of international organizations and explains how they can be activated to advance religious freedom worldwide. The handbook is a user-friendly, straightforward tool for empowering would-be advocates to promote religious freedom effectively.

One lesson that can be applied broadly from my career is the power of working in coalitions to advocate for human rights. At the State Department, I was the architect of the two religious freedom summits hosted at the Department. I was tasked with building the first-ever alliance focused on freedom of religion or belief. We intentionally brought together diverse countries from different political, religious, and regional backgrounds around freedom of conscience. Pressing repressive governments toward reform is not easy or costless. China is playing hardball, both with its persecution of Uighurs, Tibetans, Christians, and pressures countries daring to speak out. Pakistan's abusive blasphemy law is in overdrive, while India is taking a wrong turn against minorities. So, while the United States has unparalleled capabilities and a history of human rights diplomacy, interventions are more potent when likeminded countries stand together to defend shared values.

Coalition work among civil society is equally essential. In my field, we've seen NGOs and religious communities begin working across religious lines to advocate for the right for all. After the ISIS genocide, there is a recognition of the need to advocate for all, not just one's coreligionists or nationals. A holistic approach to religious freedom advocacy is the best approach, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While, of course, we should speak out for individual persecuted communities, we must do so in the context of advocating for religious freedom for all. Focusing on the right will ensure space for all faiths and those who choose not to believe.

What achievement of yours do you believe has had the most impact on your legal career?

Seeing the United States' positive influence when we advance our values through foreign policy. In human rights work, the United States is often the indispensable player. As recent events have painfully illustrated, we sometimes fall short of our ideals, and we must continually work to make our union more perfect. But these imperfections and our ability to self-correct enables the United States to press other countries to reform.

Because of the United States' intervention, I've seen innocent people released from prison, I've witnessed repressive laws changed, I've seen authoritarian governments reform. But for the United States, these positive developments would not have occurred. No other country in the world devotes as many resources to human rights advocacy as the United States. It's something we should be proud of. Instilling a concern about human rights into our diplomacy sets the United States apart. I'm proud to have played a part in representing the best of our American values abroad.

How has your time at AUWCL shaped your career? Do you have any advice for graduating J.D. and LL.M. students?

I wrote a blog article on "Tips for finding your first job in international relations," as it's hard to get a job in international affairs, either in traditional foreign relations or working on international human rights. It's very competitive, and with human rights work, underfunded. I made three points for how to separate yourself from a crowded field of applicants, summarized below.

First, learn a foreign language. A foreign language opens many doors and equips you with a tangible skill you will use throughout your career. It will differentiate you from the crowd. Second, get published. It validates and brings your resume to the top. Foreign policy work is really about writing and writing well. Being published demonstrates that others have found your writing persuasive. (And I'm sorry to say potential employers won't read your Note.) Thirdly, network, network, network. Having someone vouch for you is priceless, increasing the chance of an interview. Build a professional network by staying in touch with your internship supervisors, asking your professors for help, and requesting informational interviews.

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