Irene Khan

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Irene Khan
আইরিন জোবায়দা খান
Irene Khan 2003.jpg
Khan in November 2003
Irene Zubaida Khan

(1956-12-24) 24 December 1956 (age 63)
Alma materUniversity of Manchester
Harvard Law School
OccupationFormer Director-General, International Development Law Organization
PredecessorProfessor Sir Martin Harris
SuccessorJackie Kay
Children1 daughter
RelativesMahbub Ali Khan (uncle)

Irene Zubaida Khan (Bengali: আইরিন জোবায়দা খান; born 24 December 1956) is a Bangladeshi lawyer appointed as of August 2020 to be the United Nations Special Rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, the first woman appointed to this mandate.[1] She previously served as the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International (from 2001 to 2009). In 2011, she was elected Director-General of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) in Rome, an intergovernmental organization that works to promote the rule of law, and sustainable development. She was a consulting editor of The Daily Star.

Early life[edit]

Khan was born in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Her family came from Sylhet. She is the daughter of Dr Sikander Ali Khan, a non-practicing medical doctor; granddaughter of Ahmed Ali Khan, a Cambridge University mathematics graduate and barrister; and great-granddaughter of DrAsdar Ali Khan of Calcutta, the personal physician of Syed Hasan Imam. Her uncle, Rear Admiral Mahbub Ali Khan, was the chief of the Bangladesh Navy. She was the star pupil at St Francis Xavier's Green Herald International School, 1964-1972 where she was the record holder at the school-leaving examinations.

During her childhood, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971 following the Bangladesh Liberation War. Human rights abuses that occurred during the war helped shape the teenage Khan's activist viewpoint. She left Bangladesh as a teenager for St. Louis Grammar school in Kikeel, Northern Ireland 1973-1975.[2]

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.[3]


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 India's Chief of Mission, becoming the youngest UNHCR country representative at that time. After less than one year in New Delhi the Indian government requested that se be removed from that position. During the Kosovo crisis in 1999, Khan led the UNHCR team in the Republic of Macedoniafor three months. 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.[3] 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.[3][4]

Rule of law[edit]

During her leadership of IDLO, Irene Khan has promoted the notion that the rule of law is an important tool that can advance equity and people-centered development, whether in reducing inequalities or fostering social justice and inclusion for peace

Other activities[edit]


In media[edit]

Khan is featured in a 2003 TV documentary titled Human Rights, by the French filmmaker Denis Delestrac. The film, shot in Colombia, Israel, Palestine and Pakistan, analyses how armed conflicts affect civilian communities and foster forced migration. In 2009 Khan was featured in Soldiers of Peace, an anti-war film.[7][8]


In 2008, she was one of the two finalists for the election of the new Chancellor of the University of Manchester.[12] In July 2009, she was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Salford[3] a post she held until January 2015.

In 2006 she was awarded the City of Sydney Peace Prize for "her leadership as a courageous advocate of universal respect for human rights, and her skills in identifying violence against women as a massive injustice and therefore a priority in campaigning for peace.[13]"


Pay controversy[edit]

In February 2011, newspaper stories in the UK revealed that Khan had received a payment of £533,103 from Amnesty International following her resignation from the organization on 31 December 2009,[14] a fact pointed to from Amnesty's records for the 2009–2010 financial year. The sum paid to her was in excess of four times her annual salary of £132,490.[14] The deputy secretary general, Kate Gilmore, who also resigned in December 2009, received an ex-gratia payment of £320,000.[14][15] Peter Pack, the chairman of Amnesty's International Executive Committee (IEC), initially stated 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 31 March 2010 include payments made as part of a confidential agreement between AI Ltd and Irene Khan"[15] and that "It is a term of this agreement that no further comment on it will be made by either party."[14]

The payment and AI's initial response to its leakage to the press led to considerable outcry. 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 subsidising a fat cat payout. This will disillusion many benefactors."[15] On 21 February Peter 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.[14] 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."[14] Pack also stated that Amnesty was "fully committed to applying all the resources that we receive from our millions of supporters to the fight for human rights".[14] On 25 February, Pack issued a letter to Amnesty members and staff. In summary, it states that the IEC in 2008 had decided not to prolong Khan's contract for a third term. In the following months, IEC discovered that due to British employment law, it had to choose between the three options of either offering Khan a third term, discontinuing her post and, in their judgement, risking legal consequences, or signing a confidential agreement and issuing a pay compensation.[16]

Khan's lawyers issued a letter published by the Charity Times "It was not accurate of Amnesty International to record in its 2009/2010 corporate accounts that the amount £532,000 was paid to our client".[17] The published letter detailed the sum as including: a) her salary and contractual benefits until 31 December 2009; b) outstanding back pay and the shortfall arising in her contractual benefits from previous years (in some part going back to 2005); relocation costs for her return abroad from where she had been recruited; d) compensation as well as severance payment (£115,000 gross) in respect of a legal claim and grievances that our client had asserted against Amnesty International Limited pursuant to her UK employment rights).[17] Outgoing IEC Chairman Peter Pack, a high school teacher,[18] stated that paying off Khan was "the least worst option" available to IEC.[19] The amount paid out to Khan and her deputy (who was also removed by IEC) amounted to 4% of Amnesty International's budget that year.[20] The organization was hurt by this scandal and by choosing to pay Khan to leave, with Chairman Pack promising to make amends and move the organization forward following Khan's departure.[19] Naftali Balanson of NGO-Monitor said that the highly usually large payouts caused Amnesty "great damage".[21] She also took issue with Khan's successor's salary since Salil Shetty receives an annual take home pay of $300,000.[21]

In 2003, Irene Khan wrote a piece titled Security for Whom? in which she, inter alia, accused the allies of the occupying force in Afghanistan of "mass killings".[22]

In 2005, Irene Khan penned the introduction to that year's Amnesty International report in which she, inter alia, referred to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay as "the gulag of our time," accusing the United States of "thumb[ing] its nose at the rule of law and human rights [as] it grants a licence to others to commit abuse with impunity".[23] Much backlash followed in the media. Michael Totten of World Affairs called her a "hysterical heavy-breather".[24] An editorial opinion in the Washington Post referred to it as "[i]t is ALWAYS SAD when a solid, trustworthy institution loses its bearings and joins in the partisan fracas that nowadays passes for political discourse".[25] John Podhoretz of the New York Post said that "[t]he case of Amnesty International proves that well-meaning people can make morality their life's work and still be little more than moral idiots."[26] In his The United Nations, Peace and Security, Ramesh Thakur called Khan's likening of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to a gulag a "hyperbole" that is "wrong".[27] Commentary on Europe's Ariel Cohen said that Khan's statement was a product of being "blinded by a hatred of U.S. policies," "deception or deep[] ignoran[ce]," stating to that statement Khan, reportedly, added "[i]ronic that this should happen as we mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz".[28] Cohen stated that he is "incensed at Amnesty's gall in trivializing [the suffering of prisoners in Soviet gulags that included his grandfather] for political purposes. A former Soviet prisoner of conscience, Pavel Litvinov, told the Amnesty International staffer, who called him to inquire on behalf of Khan whether it would be appropriate to use the word 'gulag' in an Amnesty report and in relation in the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, that there was "an enormous difference" between the gulags and the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.[29] Roger Kimball of Arma Virumque called it "a preposterous remark".[30] In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, Margers Pinnis demanded that Khan issue "an apology to the peoples of all nations who suffered under the inhuman conditions of the Soviet Union's notorious prison system".[31] The Bush Administration responded to it in the following manner: President Bush called it "an absurd allegation;" Vice President Cheney said he was "offended by it;" Defense Secretary Rumsfeld called it "reprehensible" and "those who make such outlandish charges los[ing] any claim to objectivity or seriousness".[32] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Myers called it "absolutely irresponsible"[33] The White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the characterization "ridiculous".[34] Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, found this characterization "infuriating," stating that "Amnesty misus[ed] language [and] discard[ed] its former neutrality" and that it "attack[ed] the American government for the satisfaction of [the Amnesty's] own political faction".[35]

However, not everyone rallied against Khan's 'gulag' characterization. Retired US State Department officer Edmund McWilliams who monitored prisoner abuse committed in the Soviet Union and Vietnam stated the following in support of Khan's characterization: "I note that abuses that I reported on in those inhumane systems parallel abuses reported in Guantanamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and at the Abu Ghriab prison: prisoners suspended from the ceiling and beaten to death; widespread "waterboarding;" prisoners "disappeared" to preclude monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross—and all with almost no senior-level accountability".[36]


  • 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. ^ "Human Rights Council adopts four resolutions, appoints four special procedure mandate holders, and concludes its forty-fourth session". United Nations Human Rights Council.
  2. ^ "Irene Khan". Fawcett Society. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  3. ^ a b c d "Amnesty International's Secretary General becomes the University of Salford's new Chancellor". University of Salfor d. 10 July 2009. Archived from the original on 6 January 2011. Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  4. ^ "Document - Irene Khan - Biography". Amnesty International. 6 May 2009.
  5. ^ Advisory Council Transparency International.
  6. ^ "Irene Khan, Member of the Board, HD". Archived from the original on 8 March 2015. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  7. ^ "Irene Khan — The Cast — Soldiers of Peace". Archived from the original on 8 August 2009. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  8. ^ "Soldati di Pace (Soldiers of Peace)". 18 October 2009. Retrieved 18 October 2009.
  9. ^ "Irene Khan - Biography" (PDF). Amnesty International. Retrieved 1 May 2012.
  10. ^ "Honarary doctorate". Over Universiteit Gent. Archived from the original on 19 March 2009. Retrieved 27 December 2008.
  11. ^ "SOAS Honorary Fellows". SOAS.
  12. ^ "Election of Chancellor: Election Procedure". University of Manchester. 7 May 2008. Retrieved 1 December 2018.
  13. ^ "2006 Irene Khan". Sydney Peace Foundation. Retrieved 14 April 2018.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Mason, Tania, "Charity Commission has 'no jurisdiction' over board member's payment from Amnesty",, 21 February 2011. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  15. ^ a b c Chapman, John, "Amnesty boss gets secret £500,000 payout", Daily Express, 19 February 2011. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  16. ^ Pack, Peter. "A letter to all AI members and staff from the International Executive Committee" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 December 2012. Retrieved 25 January 2012.
  17. ^ a b Russell, Jones & Walker (21 March 2011). "Letter from lawyers of Irene Khan" (PDF). Charity Times. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 September 2015.
  18. ^ "Sign Up". Retrieved 19 March 2017.
  19. ^ a b "Paying off Khan was 'least-worst option' according to Amnesty's IEC chair". Civil Society Media.
  20. ^ "Amnesty's pay-offs spark outrage". The Sunday Times. London. 20 February 2011.
  21. ^ a b "Amnesty International: The High Cost of Human Rights Activism And Charity". NGO-Monitor. 12 June 2013.
  22. ^ "Security for Whom?" (PDF). London School of Economics.
  23. ^ "Guantánamo is gulag of our time, says Amnesty". The Guardian. 25 May 2005.
  24. ^ Michael Totten (24 May 2005). "The Gulag of Our Times". World Affairs.
  25. ^ "'American Gulag'". The Washington Post (Editorial). 26 May 2005.
  26. ^ John Podhoretz (27 May 2005). "Amnesty's Idiocy – Absurd Talk on Detainees". New York Post (Opinion).
  27. ^ Ramesh Thakur (2006). The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect. Cambridge University Press. pp. 107–. ISBN 978-1-139-45694-4.
  28. ^ Ariel Cohen (16 June 2005). "Gitmo is No Gulag". The Heritage Foundation.
  29. ^ Pavel Litvinov (25 June 2005). "Amnesty's gulag idiocy". The Age. Melbourne.
  30. ^ Roger Kimball (7 June 2005). "'The gulag of our times'?". The New Criterion.
  31. ^ Margers Pinnis (31 May 2005). "The Real Gulag". The New York Times.
  32. ^ "Rumsfeld rejects Amnesty's 'gulag' label". CNN. 1 June 2005.
  33. ^ "An American Gulag?". CBS News. 5 June 2005.
  34. ^ "Guantánamo denounced as a "gulag"". The Seattle Times. 26 May 2005.
  35. ^ Anne Applebaum (8 June 2005). "Amnesty's Amnesia". The Washington Post (Op-Ed).
  36. ^ "A U.S. Gulag by Any Name". The Washington Post. 2 June 2005.

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
Succeeded by
Jackie Kay