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John Knox, J.D. - Wake Forest University. Winston-Salem, NC, US

John Knox, J.D. John Knox, J.D.

Professor of Law | Wake Forest University

Winston-Salem, NC, UNITED STATES

Knox’s six years with the U.N. shaped his expertise on the issue of human rights and the environment.


John Knox is a globally recognized expert on international law, human rights law, and environmental law. In 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed him to a three-year mandate as its first Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. Since this appointment, Knox has promoted the use of internationally and constitutionally recognized human rights, including rights of freedom of expression and assembly, to defend the environment from harm.

The Council extended Knox’s mandate in 2015, and appointed him to be the first-ever Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights and the environment. Knox has published and presented more than a dozen reports to the Council, addressing the application of human rights to a wide array of issues, from climate change to biodiversity to the rights of children.

In his final report as Special Rapporteur, he set out 16 “framework principles” that provide guidance for the implementation of human rights obligations in the environmental context. Among these principles, Knox argues for international recognition of the human right to a healthy environment.

He continues to contribute to international education initiatives intended to combat threats to vulnerable populations. In 2017, Knox joined the Universal Rights Group and several other organizations in developing and launching an educational web portal, environment-rights.org, which provides an extensive list of resources for environmental defenders and human rights advocates.

Areas of Expertise (17)

Paris Climate Treaty

International Trade Law

Global Warming


Climate Change

Environmental Law

Human Rights Law

International Relations

International Law

Trade Law

Environmental Policy

Environmental Issues


Environmental Defenders

Environmental Protection Agency

Human Rights Advocates

Paris Agreement





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Education (2)

Stanford Law School: J.D., Law

Rice University: B.A., Economics

Affiliations (9)

  • United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
  • UNDP-SEPA Environmental Governance Program
  • Universal Rights Group
  • Wake Forest University Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability
  • Center for Progressive Reform
  • Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • American Society of International Law
  • NAFTA Environmental Commission

Media Appearances (7)

Polish law sparks fears over civil rights at U.N. climate talks



Poland is under international pressure to allow activists to demonstrate freely at December’s U.N. climate change talks, and protect participants’ privacy, after legislation passed in January sparked fears over civil rights. U.N. rapporteur Knox noted that, in general under international human rights law, “blanket prohibitions on protests are strongly disfavored and generally unjustifiable”. Knox, also a professor at North Carolina’s Wake Forest University School of Law, said he could not comment directly on the Polish law, but noted many environmental activists face danger in carrying out their work around the world.

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UN moves towards recognising human right to a healthy environment

The Guardian  


John Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, said the momentum for such a move – which would significantly raise the global prominence of the issue – was growing along with an awareness of the heavy toll being paid by those fighting against deforestation, pollution, land grabs and poaching.

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'They should be thought of as heroes': Why killings of environmental activists are rising globally

Los Angeles Times  


In 2012, recognizing the threats posed by environmental degradation, the United Nations Human Rights Council appointed an independent expert to study how countries’ human rights obligations are connected to promoting “a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment.” John Knox, a law professor at Wake Forest University, was appointed the first special rapporteur on human rights and the environment. His three-year mandate was extended in 2015.

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UN expert urges fresh Mongolia action on environment

United Nations Human Rights  


“Global warming is changing Mongolia’s climate more rapidly than that of many other countries,” warned the Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, Mr. John H. Knox, saying the country’s world-famous nomadic herding culture was under threat from severe weather and the loss of land to mining and agriculture. Mr. Knox praised the dedicated Mongolians working to protect the environment with exceptional commitment, and said the country already had a host of pertinent laws setting out strong environmental standards and safeguards.

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For Latin American environmentalists, death is a constant companion

The Washington Post  


Those locals have an interest in eliminating whomever gets in the way, according to John Knox, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and a professor of international law at Wake Forest University. Most victims are indigenous people “who are oppressed, largely marginalized and are considered almost expendable by the powers that be,” he said.

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Paris climate deal must ensure respect for human rights: U.N.

Reuters  online


"There is a relationship between human rights and climate change - Paris can't do anything about pretending that relationship doesn't exist," said John Knox, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment ...

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Brazil Dam’s Failure Flooded Region With Toxic Waste, U.N. Report Says

The Wall Street Journal  online


“The scale of the environmental damage is the equivalent of 20,000 Olympic swimming pools of toxic mud waste contaminating the soil, rivers and water system of an area covering over 850 kilometers,” Knox is quoted as saying ...

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Articles (5)

Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment United Nations Annual Report


The 16 framework principles set out basic obligations of States under human rights law as they relate to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Each framework principle has a commentary that elaborates on it and further clarifies its meaning. The framework principles and commentary do not create new obligations. Rather, they reflect the application of existing human rights obligations in the environmental context.

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Children’s rights and the environment United Nations Annual Report


Taken as a whole, no group is more vulnerable to environmental harm than children (persons under the age of 18), who make up 30 percent of the world’s population. Environmental harm has especially severe effects on children under the age of 5. Of the 5.9 million deaths of children under the age of 5 in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than one quarter — more than 1.5 million deaths — could have been prevented through the reduction of environmental risks.

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Climate Change United Nations Annual Report


As the Special Rapporteur has previously explained, States have obligations to protect the enjoyment of human rights from environmental harm (A/HRC/25/53). These obligations encompass climate change. The foreseeable adverse effects of climate change on the enjoyment of human rights give rise to duties of States to take actions to protect against those effects. Human rights obligations apply not only to decisions about how much climate protection to pursue, but also to the mitigation and adaptation measures through which the protection is achieved.

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Biodiversity United Nations Annual Report


The full enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to life, health, food and water, depends on the services provided by ecosystems. The provision of ecosystem services depends on the health and sustainability of ecosystems, which in turn depend on biodiversity. The full enjoyment of human rights thus depends on biodiversity, and the degradation and loss of biodiversity undermine the ability of human beings to enjoy their human rights.

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The Paris Agreement As a Human Rights Treaty Human Rights and 21st Century Challenges: Poverty, Conflict, and the Environment


The Paris Agreement on climate change is the first international environmental agreement to refer specifically to human rights. Although the Paris Agreement is not a human rights treaty in the usual sense, it does help to mainstream human rights norms into the ongoing implementation and evolution of the climate regime.

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