Irene Khan

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Irene Khan
Irene Khan 2003.jpg
Native name আইরিন খান
Born (1956-12-24) 24 December 1956 (age 59)
Sylhet, East Pakistan
(now Bangladesh)
Nationality Bangladeshi
Ethnicity Bengali
Education Law
Alma mater University of Manchester
Harvard Law School
Occupation Director-General of the International Development Law Organization
Title Chancellor
Predecessor Professor Sir Martin Harris
Successor Jackie Kay
Religion Islam
Children 1 daughter
Relatives Mahbub Ali Khan (uncle)

Irene Zubaida Khan (born 24 December 1956) is a Bangladeshi lawyer who served as the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International (2001-2009). In 2011, she was elected Director-General of the International Development Law Organization (IDLO) in Rome, Italy, an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the promotion of the rule of law. She is also a consulting editor of The Daily Star.

Early life[edit]

Khan was born in Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan to a relatively wealthy family. She is the daughter of Sikander Ali Khan, a 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. 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.

During her childhood, East Pakistan became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971 following a struggle that became known as 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 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.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3]


Irene Khan resigned from Amnesty International on 31 December 2009, and it was revealed[4] in February 2011 that she had received a settlement payment of £530,000. The terms of this compromise agreement remain secret due to the loophole that Khan was employed by Amnesty International Ltd, which is not a charity, unlike the similarly named and related Amnesty International Charity.[4] In response to the "anger and puzzlement" of Amnesty International staff at this payout, AI issued a breakdown of the settlement and information on legal changes.[5]

The current Director General of IDLO Irene Khan was hired by IDLO after having been forced out of the position of Secretary-General at Amnesty International. As Khan refused to leave the position amicably after having received notification from Amnesty International's Board of Directors known as the International Executive Committee (IEC), the IEC was forced to pay Khan to remove her from office. The amount of payment was £533,103 (which was US$879,619.95 at the then prevailing exchange rate). IEC Chairman Peter Pack stated that paying off Khan was "the least worst option" available to IEC to get her to leave.[43] The amount of the payout was quadruple Khan's annual salary of £132,490 ($218,608.5). 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.[44] Amnesty International, in part, receives its funding from "money-raising campaigns among young people and in schools".[45] In the wake of this scandal some pointed out that Khan held herself out as a "campaigner against poverty" ( Internal disclosure of this amount caused "anger and puzzlement" amount the Amnesty International staff. The public disclosure of the amount of payoff made to Khan caused a popular outcry,[45] with a number of individual donors canceling their donations to Amnesty International. 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.[43]Naftali Balanson of NGO-Monitor said that the highly usually large payouts caused Amnesty "great damage" ( An independent and confidential report by Dame Anne Owers criticized both the settlements reached with Kahn and her deputy and Amnesty International's management, with Owers finding that the amounts paid were higher than what had been reported by Amnesty, and that Amnesty paid Kahn's legal fees. Owers called the payouts "seriously excessive" and "wholly inappropriate" stating that only half of the amount could be explained as a contractual obligation.[6] Tory MP Philip Davis called the payout "ludicrous," stating the following: "I am sure people making donations to Amnesty, in the belief they are alleviating poverty, never dreamed they are subsidizing a fat cat payout".[7] An anonymous Amnesty donor interviewed by the British daily Express had the following to say on the subject: "I won't be giving any more money. How can this woman lecture the world about abuses and then walk off with this staggering amount of cash?".[8] Seeking to save the organization's donor base IEC Chairman rushed to assure the donor that there would be no repetition of the Kahn payout stating the following: "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," adding that Amnesty was "fully committed to applying all the resources that we receive from our millions of supporters to the fight for human rights".[citation needed]

In 2003, Irene Khan wrote a piece titled Security for Whom? in which she, inter alia, accused the occupying force in Afghanistan (US and its allies) of "mass killings".[9]

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"( Much backlash followed in the media. Michael Totten of World Affairs called her a "hysterical heavy-breather" ( 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" ( 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." ( 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" ( 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" ( 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 ( Roger Kimball of Arma Virumque called it "a preposterous remark" ( In a letter of 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" ( 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" e(, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Myers called it "absolutely irresponsible" ( The White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the characterization "ridiculous" ( 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 " ( 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" ( After having received virtually no support for her characterization of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility Khan did not retract it and continued insisting on its propriety and correctness (

In 2010, speaking at a Salford University conference Khan referred to the pre-9/11 British anti-terrorism laws as "draconian," noting that those laws that rendered al-Qaida "a banned organization" in the UK before the 9/11 attacks (keynote lecture at Salford University). Kahn further described the US policy of war on terror as "breathtakingly shameless doublespeak" and a "global web of abuse."

Kahn's criticism of the US government, whether for maintaining the Guantanamo Bay detention facility or otherwise, ended with her installation as IDLO Director General, an organization where the US government plays an active and key role both as a donor and as a member.

According to the workplace information aggregator Glassdoor Khan's current approval rating as IDLO Director General is at 21%, with a number of reviewers—most of whom are current staff but some former IDLO staff—noting "poor direction and management" (

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.[3]
  • Khan is featured in a 2003 TV documentary titled Human Rights, by the French award-winning 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.[10][11]
  • Since 2010, Khan has served as a Member of the Board[12] for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.


In 2008, she was one of the two finalists for the election of the new Chancellor of the University of Manchester.[16] In July 2009, she was appointed as Chancellor of the University of Salford[2] a post she held until January 2015.


  • 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. ^ a b c d e
  4. ^ a b Tania Mason, Charity Commission has 'no jurisdiction' over board member's payment from Amnesty,, 21 February 2011. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  5. ^ "Paying off Khan was 'least-worst option' according to Amnesty's IEC chair". Civil Society - Governance. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Irene Khan — The Cast — Soldiers of Peace". Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  11. ^ "Soldati di Pace (Soldiers of Peace)". 18 October 2009. Retrieved 18 October 2009. 
  12. ^ "Irene Khan, Member of the Board, HD". Retrieved 16 March 2015. 
  13. ^ "Irene Khan - Biography" (PDF). Amnesty International. Retrieved 1 May 2012. 
  14. ^ "Honarary doctorate". Over Universiteit Gent. Retrieved 27 December 2008. 
  15. ^ "SOAS Honorary Fellows". SOAS. 
  16. ^ "Biographical Summaries" (PDF). 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
Succeeded by
Jackie Kay