International Unitarian Universalism

Authoritarian Leaders on Notice

By Bruce Knotts

This post was originally sent out on June 21 via a monthly email message from Director Bruce Knotts of the Unitarian Universalist Association Office at the United Nations. Subscribe to the UU@UN email list.

U.S. President Joe Biden recently had his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who continues to change the Russian Constitution to allow him to rule as an autocrat for life.

In meetings earlier in the week, Biden had called on democratic nations to work together to counter the growing authoritarian movement.

Our Unitarian Universalist values compel us to uphold democratic values and work to hold human rights violators accountable.

To take action on these values, in the 1990s the UU@UN led the faith-based caucus to establish the International Criminal Court. John Washburn of Community Church NYC and Elaine Harvey of the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship were leaders in this movement. (Elaine’s book detailing her involvement in this process has just been published and is available in digital and hardcover editions.*)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit in chairs looking at one another with each country’s flag in the background

Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin at a 2016 meeting.

The ICC Chief Prosecutor has requested that an investigation of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte be initiated for his administration’s extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers. Though many in the Philippines admire President Duterte’s war on drugs, killing people without judicial process is not only a moral outrage but also a violation of international law.

Disregard for and manipulation of law is at the root of authoritarian rule.

We are learning more and more about how former president Donald Trump tried to manipulate the Department of Justice, the Supreme Court, state attorneys general, members of Congress, and the public to overturn our 2020 presidential election and keep himself in office. He made it clear that he, like his friend Vladimir Putin, would like to be president for life.

In this pandemic, we have seen these authoritarian leaders perform far worse in combating the virus than democratic governments. First, authoritarian leaders such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, Donald Trump, and others denied that the COVID-19 was a serious illness.

Denial, inaction, deflection, and misinformation are all tools of authoritarian leaders. Unfortunately, the world seems to be witnessing a growth in authoritarian governments.

Within the UN system, the UU@UN works with democratic governments that respect human rights to address the global problems of climate justice, migration, international health concerns, poverty, human rights abuses, inequality, gender-based violence, and more. We collaborate with civil society and supportive governments to help the United Nations develop norms and standards—and find ways to maintain them.

Just as the UU@UN played a key role in the establishment of the International Criminal Court, we continue to support international norms and standards that are consistent with our values and those of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We are living in tough times, and often in such times people turn to authoritarian leaders to solve problems. It never turns out well.

Even in the worst of times, respecting the rights of everyone and helping the vulnerable and those in need will result in far better outcomes for us all.

As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that abiding by our principles and values will result in a better world for us all. That is the mission of the UU@UN in these times when we need global, inclusive solutions to global problems.

* To get a hard copy of the book, order online; to get a free digital copy, contact Tara Bauer (, Elaine Harvey’s granddaughter.

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About the Author

Bruce Knotts

Bruce Knotts is the Director of the Unitarian Universalist Office at the United Nations. He was born and raised in Southern California. He got his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Pepperdine University and his Master’s Degree in International Education from the Monterey Institute of...


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