Irene Zubaida Khan was born on December 24, 1956, to a relatively wealthy Muslim family in Bangladesh. She left that country as a teenager to attend school in Northern Ireland. She subsequently studied law at the Victoria University of Manchester (England), where she became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Khan completed her legal studies at Harvard Law School, where she specialized in public international law and human rights. She graduated from Harvard Law in 1978.
In 1977 Khan helped to establish Concern Universal, an international anti-poverty and emergency-relief organization working in partnership with Children in Crossfire. Two years later she became a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists. In 1980 she was named the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a position she would hold for twenty years. In 1995 she was appointed UNHCR Chief of Mission in India.
In August 2001 Khan was named Secretary General of Amnesty International, where she repeatedly used her influence to attack the U.S.-led war on terrorism. She equated the toughened security measures enacted by liberal democracies after 9/11, with the human rights abuses perpetrated by some of the world’s most oppressive dictatorial regimes. “Governments are not entitled to respond to terror with terror,” she explained.
In Khan’s estimation, the most pressing threat to the cause of global human rights is posed by the United States and Europe. Khan has railed against the “racial profiling and detention of immigrants in the USA,” adding that the “labeling of refugees and asylum-seekers as ‘terrorists’ in Europe have compounded the stigmatization.” “In a climate of increasing xenophobia and racism,” she laments, “asylum-seekers are being sent back to face imprisonment, torture, or death, and violent attacks on members of minority communities are on the increase.” Moreover, Khan has made an explicit “call to the media not to say ‘Islamic terrorist.'”
During the presidency of George W. Bush, Khan asserted that “the global security agenda promoted by the U.S. administration is bankrupt of vision and bereft of principle.” This agenda, she elaborated, was responsible for America “violating rights at home, turning a blind eye to abuses abroad, and using pre-emptive military force where and when it [the U.S.] chooses” — thereby “damag[ing] justice and freedom, and [making] the world a more dangerous place.”
At the UN World Conference Against Racism — which was held in early September 2001 in Durban, South Africa — Khan was silent when a motion to exclude the testimony of Jewish victims of racism was put to the vote and adopted. When the representatives of every Jewish non-governmental organization in attendance walked out of the conference to protest that vote, Khan, along with the rest of the Amnesty International delegation, stayed.
In 2001 and 2002, Khan denounced the U.S. military campaign to oust Afganistan’s Taliban regime — which Amnesty International’s own reports had long accused of brutally suppressing women’s rights, denying the civilian population the right to political representation, and establishing Shari’a (Islamic Law) courts that “continued to impose cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments” on the Afghani people. On December 10, 2001, Khan stated: “The world does not need ‘America’s war against ‘terrorism’; it needs a culture of peace based on human rights for all.”
Still less sympathetic was Khan’s reaction to the U.S.-led war to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. When Britain’s Foreign Office released a December 2002 report detailing human rights abuses in Iraq — a report that drew on Amnesty International’s research documenting the thousands of Iraqis and Kurds who had been systematically raped, tortured, imprisoned, and exterminated by Saddam’s Baathist regime — Khan dismissed the report as nothing more than “a cold and calculated manipulation of the work of human rights activists.”
Shortly after the Baathist regime’s rapid fall to American troops, Khan suggested that the war was being prosecuted primarily to serve American oil interests. “There seems to have been more preparation to protect the oil wells than to protect hospitals, water systems or civilians,” she said.
Khan struck an equally condemnatory tone when referencing the 2004 prisoner abuses at the Abu Ghraib detention center. “The U.S. administration has shown a consistent disregard for the Geneva Conventions and basic principles of law, human rights, and decency,” she said. “This has created a climate in which U.S. soldiers feel they can dehumanize and degrade prisoners with impunity. What we now see in Iraq is the logical consequence of the relentless pursuit of the ‘war on terror’ regardless of the costs to human rights and the rules of war.”
Under Khan’s leadership, Amnesty International in 2003 produced a 339-page report which concluded that America’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq had “dealt a mortal blow” to the UN’s vision of universal human rights. Expounding on the report, Khan said: “Not since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 has there been such a sustained attack on [its] values and principles.”
In Amnesty International’s annual report of 2005, Khan stated, “Guantanamo has become the gulag of our time…” She accused the U.S. of creating a “new and hateful agenda,” and of “rewriting the rules of human rights.” She characterized America as an “unrivalled political, military and economic hyper-power” that “thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights.” “By peddling the politics of fear and division,” added Khan, “this new [American] agenda has also encouraged intolerance, racism, and xenophobia.”
Khan stepped down from her position as the head of Amnesty International at the end of 2009.