|Biographical detail : ||Former Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
Irene Khan is the first woman, Asian and Muslim to head Amnesty International, the human rights organisation that has more than 2.2 million members in 140 countries. Since starting in August 2001, she had to respond to a series of crisis from September 11 attacks to Middle East conflicts, continued human rights abuses in Kashmir and Chechnya and violence in Zimbabwe.
As secretary-general Ms Khan was Amnesty’s spokeswoman and strategic leader as well as chief executive of the international secretariat, which had a £25m budget, 335 paid staff and 91 volunteers. She worked with an international executive committee of nine elected members to draw up priorities on which members, who provide most of the organisation’s £80m annual funding, are consulted. Under her leadership, Amnesty widened its focus from prisoners and refugees to economic, social and cultural rights and accountability.
Amnesty began in 1961 in Britain with the aims at taking action on human rights and freedom of expression, and specifically to speak for the rights of prisoners of conscience – “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.”
In the early 1970s, the group published their first report on torture, which showed that it was far more widespread and pernicious than once thought. The report really shocked the world. Now, Amnesty has a profusion of causes: supporting refugees and asylum seekers, opposing violence against women, backing what it calls “social and economic rights”.
Amnesty’s opposition to Guantanamo has been vociferous, with Irene Khan causing a storm in 2005 with her description of the prison as “the gulag of our time”. The so-called “war on terror” has brought “a real backlash on human rights, setting back progress for decades”, according to Khan. “It’s not only what the US has done – it’s the message that has gone to others, who have used it as a licence to continue setting back human right”.
Irene Khan was the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International until her resignation on 31 December 2009. In 2011 she has been elected new Director-General of the International Development Law Organization - IDLO, an intergovernmental organization based in Rome, Italy.
Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ms Khan studied law at Manchester University and Harvard Law School. She spent 20 years with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Her consciousness about human rights began around the time of the civil war in Bangladesh when she was 14. She is concerned with growing shift since September 11 seems to be how easily governments, and in some cases people, are accepting the logic that you have to trade human rights in order to gain security.