Irene Khan

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Irene Khan
Irene Khan 2003.jpg
Native name আইরিন খান
Born (1956-12-24) 24 December 1956 (age 57)
Sylhet, East Pakistan
(now Bangladesh)
Nationality Bangladeshi
Ethnicity Bengali
Education Law
Alma mater University of Manchester
Harvard Law School
Occupation Consulting editor
Employer University of Salford
Title Chancellor
Predecessor Professor Sir Martin Harris
Religion Islam
Children 1 daughter
Relatives Mahbub Ali Khan (uncle)

Irene Zubaida Khan (born 24 December 1956) is a Bangladeshi human rights lawyer and leading global civil rights advocate. She was the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009. In 2011, she was elected as the Director-General of the International Development Law Organization in Rome. She is also a consulting editor of The Daily Star.

Early life[edit]

Khan grew up in a relatively wealthy family in Bangladesh. She was the star pupil at St Francis Xavier's Green Herald International School, where she was the record holder at the school-leaving examinations. She is the daughter of Sikander Ali Khan, a non-practicing medical doctor; granddaughter of Ahmed Ali Khan, a Cambridge University graduate and barrister; and great-granddaughter of Asdar Ali Khan, an eminent doctor of Calcutta who was the personal physician of Syed Hasan Imam. Her uncle Rear Admiral Mahbub Ali Khan was the chief of the Bangladesh Navy.

During her childhood, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was fighting for independence from Pakistan in 1971. Human rights abuses that occurred during the Bangladesh Liberation War helped shape the teenage Khan's activist viewpoint. She left Bangladesh as a teenager for school in Northern Ireland.[1]

Khan went to England, where she studied law at the University of Manchester and then, in the United States, at Harvard Law School. She specialized in public international law and human rights.[2]


Human rights[edit]

Khan helped to create the organisation Concern Universal in 1977, an international development and emergency relief organisation. She began her career as a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists in 1979.

Khan went to work at the United Nations in 1980. She spent 20 years at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1995 she was appointed UNHCR Chief of Mission in India, becoming the youngest UNHCR country representative at that time. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Khan led the UNHCR team in the Republic of Macedonia. This led to her being appointed as Deputy Director of International Protection later that year.

Amnesty International[edit]

Khan at the World Economic Forum 2007

Khan joined Amnesty International in 2001 as its Secretary General.[2] In her first year of office, she reformed Amnesty’s response to human rights crises and launched the campaign to close the United States' Guantanamo Bay detention camp, which held suspected enemy combatants. In 2004 she initiated a global campaign to stop violence against women. In May 2009 Khan launched Amnesty's “Demand Dignity” campaign to fight human rights abuses that impoverish people and keep them poor.[2]

Taking the helm in Amnesty International as the first woman, the first Asian and the first Muslim to guide the world’s largest human rights organization, Bangladeshi national Irene brought a new perspective to the organization. As an individual, she brought experience and enthusiasm for putting people at the heart of policy.[3]

Irene took up the leadership of Amnesty International in its 40th anniversary year as the organization began a process of change and renewal to address the complex nature of contemporary human rights violations, and confronted the challenging developments in the wake of the attacks of 11 September. She has also been at the helm of broadening the work of the organization in areas of economic, social and cultural rights, and initiating a process of internal reform and renewal to enable the organisation to respond flexibly and rapidly to world events.[4]

Irene reformed AI’s response to crisis situations, personally leading high level missions to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel/Occupied Territories, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, Thailand, the Darfur region of Sudan and Nepal. Deeply concerned about women’s human rights, she initiated a process of consultations with women activists to design a global campaign by Amnesty International against violence on women, which was launched in March 2004.[5]

She drew attention to hidden human rights violations. In Australia, she heightened attention to the plight of asylum seekers in detention. In Burundi, she met with victims of massacres and urged President Buyoya and other parties to the conflict to end the cycle of human rights abuse. In Bulgaria, she led a campaign to end discrimination of those suffering from mental disabilities. In Mexico, she met the mothers of young girls who had murdered in Ciudad Juárez and took their claims for justice to President Fox. In Spain, she met survivors of the March 11 attacks in Madrid. In Nepal, she met King Gyanendra to discuss the country’s deteriorating human rights situation.[6]


In February 2011, newspaper stories [7][8][9] in the UK revealed that Khan had received a payment of UK £533,103 from Amnesty International following her resignation from the organisation on 31 December 2009.[10] The figure included numerous entitlements, most of which were her salary and benefits earned over several years in the course of her employment, rather than being a sum in respect of her termination, according to information made public in a UK newspaper.[11] The deputy secretary general, Kate Gilmore, who also resigned in December 2009, received an ex-gratia payment.[10][12]

Peter Pack, the chairman of Amnesty's international executive committee, said on 19 February 2011, “The payments to outgoing secretary general Irene Khan shown in the accounts of AI (Amnesty International) Ltd for the year ending March 31st 2010 include payments made as part of a confidential agreement between AI Ltd and Irene Khan.”[12] “It is a term of this agreement that no further comment on it will be made by either party.”[10] On 21 February Pack issued a further statement, in which he said that the payment was a “unique situation” that was “in the best interest of Amnesty’s work” and that there would be no repetition of it.[10] He stated that "the new secretary general, with the full support of the IEC, has initiated a process to review our employment policies and procedures to ensure that such a situation does not happen again."[10] Pack also said that Ammesty was “fully committed to applying all the resources that we receive from our millions of supporters to the fight for human rights.”[10] In a statement[13] released by Pack following the media coverage of the story, he described the decision to award the payment to Khan as the “least worst option.”[14] Philip Davies, the Conservative MP for Shipley, decried the payment, telling the Daily Express, “I am sure people making donations to Amnesty, in the belief they are alleviating poverty, never dreamed they were subsidizing a fat cat payout. This will disillusion many benefactors.”[12]

On 14 March 2011, Irene Khan resigned as UK Charity Commissioner, a public office she had taken in early 2010 after leaving Amnesty. She said she had lack of time due to overseas commitments. Some had questioned Khan's appointment to the board of the charity regulator in the aftermath of the payment scandal. Announcing Khan’s resignation from the Charity Commission, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, said: “Charities have a critical role to play in the Big Society and the Charity Commission, as the independent regulator has the important job of supervising the sector and preserving public confidence in charities.”[15]

Other humanitarian initiatives[edit]

  • Interested in working directly with people to change their lives, Irene helped to found the development organization, Concern Universal, in 1977, and began her work as a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists in 1979.[16]
  • In 2009 Khan was featured in Soldiers of Peace, an anti-war film.[17][18]


In 2008, she was one of the two finalists for the election of the new Chancellor of the University of Manchester.[22] In July 2009, she was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Salford.[2]


  • 2009: The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights (W.W. Norton & Co.) : ISBN 0-393-33700-6, translated into French, German, Finnish, Dutch, Italian, Korean, and special South Asia edition by Viva, New Delhi.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Irene Khan". Fawcett Society. Retrieved 4 June 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Amnesty International's Secretary General becomes the University of Salford's new Chancellor". University of Salford. 10 July 2009. Retrieved 22 February 2011. 
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Amnesty’s pay-offs spark outrage". The Sunday Times. 20 February 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  8. ^ -pay-offs-bosses.html "Amnesty’s secret £800,000 pay-offs to two bosses....which it doesn’t seem very keen to talk about". Daily Mail. 19 February 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  9. ^ "Letters". The Sunday Times. 6 March 2011. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Mason, Tania (21 February 2011). _ has_no_jurisdiction_over_board_members_payment_from_amnesty "Charity Commission has 'no jurisdiction' over board member's payment from Amnesty". Civil Society. Retrieved 22 March 2011. 
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b c Chapman, John (19 February 2011). "Amnesty boss gets secret £500,000 payout". Daily Express. Retrieved 21 February 2011. 
  13. ^ "A letter to all AI members and staff from the International Executive Committee". Amnesty International. Retrieved 2 March 2011. 
  14. ^ Young, Niki May (1 March 2011). "Paying off Khan was 'least-worst option' according to Amnesty's IEC chair". Civil society. Retrieved 2 May 2012. 
  15. ^ "Irene Khan resigns from Charity Commission board". Civil society. 14 March 2011. Retrieved 21 March 2011. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Irene Khan — The Cast — Soldiers of Peace". Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  18. ^ "Soldati di Pace (Soldiers of Peace)". 18 October 2009. Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  19. ^ "Irene Khan - Biography". Amnesty International. Retrieved 1 May 2012. [dead link]
  20. ^ "Honarary doctorate". Over Universiteit Gent. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  21. ^ "SOAS Honorary Fellows". SOAS. 
  22. ^ "Biographical Summaries". University of Manchester. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 

External links[edit]

Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Pierre Sané
Secretary-General of Amnesty International
Succeeded by
Salil Shetty
Academic offices
Preceded by
Professor Sir Martin Harris
Chancellor of the University of Salford