‘’Torture should have been kept where it belonged, in the 16th century, instead of being imported into the 21st.‘’

Irene Khan

by Radiyah Shakur

Irene Khan not only makes a living out of confronting and challenging human rights violations, she lived through two civil wars and experienced human rights abuses first hand.

Irene KhanIrene Khan grew up in war and poverty-stricken Bangladesh at a time when it achieved independence from Pakistan. She and her family later fled to Northern Ireland as refugees. From an early age, Irene had witnessed human rights violations and was interested in defending people from these abuses.

Khan studied law at The Victoria University of Manchester and Harvard Law School, specialising in public international law and human rights. In 1977, she helped found Concern Universal which was a development organisation. Two years later she began work as a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists. In 1980 Khan became a member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and in 1995 was sent to India as the UNHCR Chief of Mission, being the youngest UNHCR country representative at the time. Not stopping there, she led the UNHCR during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, and was appointed Deputy Director of International Protection later that year.

In 2001, Irene Khan became the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International (AI), which is the world’s largest human rights organization. This made her the first woman, the first Muslim and the first Asian to hold this high-ranking post. Khan initiated reforms to AI’s response to crisis situations in her first year in office, and personally led high level missions to Pakistan, Israel, the West bank, Gaza and Columbia.

Irene, who is a staunch advocate of women’s rights, began a process of consultations with women activists to design a global campaign by Amnesty International against violence on women.

Irene Khan continues to serve as Secretary General, receiving a Ford Foundation Fellowship, and the Pilkington Woman of the Year Award 2002, among other academic recognitions.


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