Faculty Profile: A ‘Conversation With’ Professor John Knox

Photo of Professor John Knox

Professor of International Law John Knox

Professor John Knox opened his Spring 2012 “Conversation With” with a disclaimer:  He thought his interview might seem lackluster, fresh off the law school’s recent “Conversation With” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. But listening to Knox elaborate on his impressive and extensive career, culminating in his most recent accolade, a United Nations appointment, it soon became apparent that Knox is anything but uninteresting.

Born in Chapel Hill, N.C., Knox spent most of his youth growing up in Arlington, Texas, the child of a history professor father and a social worker mother. Despite an obvious early exposure to the public interest sector, Knox admits having little prior knowledge of law during his childhood.  What he did know? It was a field he wanted to pursue.

“We didn’t know any lawyers, no lawyers in the family, so that may have helped in a way because lawyers to me were like Perry Mason and people like that,” he explained. “Yes, from a pretty early age, I thought being a lawyer would be a good idea.”.

Of course, despite his dreams of becoming a lawyer, Knox’s first major career move was actually working at Six Flags…the original one in Texas, he is quick to point out.

From there Knox went on to graduate from the Stanford Law School, and clerk for Judge Joseph T. Sneed of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. By that time, Knox explains, he had decided International Law would become his primary focus.

From 1988 to 1994, Knox served as an attorney-adviser at the U.S. Department of State, where he dealt primarily with international claims and disputes.

“It was a great time to be at the State Department,” he explained. “The world was changing all around us. The Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire were falling apart, Germany ended up being re-united, and there were major changes going on in the U.N. For the first time, the U.N. Security Council seemed like it was going to work the way it was supposed to: Iran invaded Kuwait, and it seemed like the U.N. was actually going to respond.”

Though one of his earliest positions, Knox explains that his work at the State Department was both engaging and demanding.

“I was basically doing international litigation. I was handed cases and told these are mine. If you go to work for a government job right out of law school, you are going to be given experience and responsibility right away.”

From the State Department, Knox went on to four years of private practice in Austin, Texas, where he focused mainly on environmental issues. In one memorable case, Knox said he and his firm were able to settle a suit over emission testing between a private company and the state of Texas for a $10 million contingency.

Smiling at the memory, Knox jokes, “It was a ‘people running down the halls throwing money in the air’ moment.”

Indeed it was, for shortly thereafter, Knox and his wife, Julie, were able to re-locate to Pennsylvania, where they would remain for eight years while Knox was a professor at Penn State University.

In 2006, Knox joined the Wake Forest University School of Law, where he teaches and writes about environmental protection, international trade and human rights. In fact, much of his scholarly and pro bono work is centered on the intersection between those two interests. He is also currently contributing to a book on human and environmental rights in international law, while simultaneously advising multiple interest bodies, including U.N. groups and the island-nation Maldives, on the relationship between the two fields.

Knox’s passion for the intersection between environmental and human rights comes through pointedly when describing his experience lobbying for the protection of the Maldives.

He reminds us, “You take for granted the fact that you can enjoy your human rights because you have a place to enjoy them.”

In July, Knox was appointed as the ”Independent Expert on the human rights obligations related to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment” by the Human Rights Council of the United Nations.

Created by the Council in its last mandate in April 2012, the position is meant to serve as a means of heightening pressure on countries to both clarify and abide by their human rights obligations. While serving, Knox is responsible for urging States to understand the impact environmental degradations have on the lives and the fundamental rights of people around the world, while simultaneously seeking to strengthen international recognition of the right to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

“Human rights has become more developed in the past 25 years, and more of a body of law that people can focus on in different ways,” Knox says. “So, it makes sense for the U.N. to take stock of where it has developed over the past 25 years, and where it is going.”

Though multiple individuals applied for the position, only three were selected via interview, before the president of the Council appointed Knox to the expert position. Knox will be officially inducted in September.

In looking to the future, Knox envisions significant opportunities for Wake Forest law students as his position develops. He expresses an interest in potentially developing a human rights or sustainability clinic as an offshoot of the Community Law and Business Clinic, or at the very least using students in a clinic-like manner.

“It is a pretty big deal to get one of these appointments because it means you are THE expert on this subject in the whole world,” Knox says. “There will be opportunity for a lot of Wake Forest law students to help me work on this, and get practical experience in international law.”