Irene Khan: Banged to rights

Just when Amnesty International might have been addressing prisoner abuse, it turned its focus elsewhere. Its out-going boss admits to a sense of failure. Paul Rodgers meets Irene Khan

The Place of the Ravens, 30km west of Baghdad, has long been of interest to civil liberties groups. The largest prison in Iraq, built in the 1960s by British contractors, has for decades generated stories of abuse, not least under Saddam Hussein, who kept as many as 15,000 people imprisoned there. But it was in 2004, when pictures of offences ranging from the grossly humiliating to murderous leaked out, that the jail's name became a byword for torture – Abu Ghraib.

The abiding image of that period is of a hooded detainee, standing on a box and draped in sack cloth, with electrodes attached to his fingers and testicles as if he is about to be shocked. Other pictures show grinning guards with naked prisoners in degrading poses. Reports of beatings, rapes and deaths were described by the US army's own investigation as "credible". The commanding officer of Abu Ghraib, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who was demoted to colonel for failing to stop the abuses, later said that 90 per cent of the Iraqi prisoners were innocent.

It was exactly the sort of case that Amnesty International was established to fight against. "We should have had huge protests," admits Irene Khan, Amnesty's secretary general, with an engaging candour. "We failed. As an organisation, we failed to move people to outrage."

You can tell that it bothers her. For the first time during our interview at Amnesty's fortress-like headquarters in Clerkenwell, London, she's uncomfortable and fidgety. "We published reports," she says. "We had meetings with governments. We were on the website, and we were in newspaper interviews. But the other side was the security agenda, and we were unable to understand how to overcome the fears of the people. In Amnesty we are still too legalistic and remote from the concerns of people."

While many in the US, and elsewhere in the West, felt revulsion over Abu Ghraib, few experienced anger. Many people saw the detainees as the enemy, the sort who crash airplanes into skyscrapers. Besides, the US army acquitted itself relatively well, investigating even before the first public leaks and court-martialing those soldiers it could, including officers.

Higher up the chain of command, though, the Bush administration and its supporters circled the wagons around the then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who since 2001 had encouraged the use of "aggressive interrogation techniques" – the euphemism for torture.

Amnesty's failure to rouse even its 2.8 million members, let alone the public, may simply have reflected the general ambivalence created by divided authority figures at a time when the West, and the US in particular, felt under threat. But perhaps it was because, under Khan's eight-year leadership, Amnesty has taken its eye off the ball. Faced with the biggest single threat to the liberal values that underlie Amnesty's existence, Khan has been haring off in new directions.

Irene Zubaida Khan, who is relinquishing her post at Amnesty at the end of this year, is in many ways the epitome of a career international bureaucrat. She was born in 1956 in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, the privileged daughter of a doctor and granddaughter of a lawyer. "We were a professional, middle-class family," she says, "which taught me that you have a responsibility for others. I saw my father take considerable risks to go out and provide medical care to civilians who had been wounded by the army during the war of independence." That was in 1971, when she was 15. "War seemed almost romantic," she says. But there were painful experiences, too. "The father of one of my very close school friends was shot dead, in front of his daughter's eyes, because he was a Hindu. There were stories of women being raped and once bullets came flying through our house."

After the war came retaliation against those who had collaborated, and then famine. In 1973, her parents sent Khan to the safety of a boarding school run by Catholic nuns in Northern Ireland. "In the middle of the Troubles," she says, her eyes agleam with amusement beneath her nest of curly black and grey hair. "A lot of bombs were going off, so to me it seemed a normal way of life."

School was followed by law degrees at the University of Manchester and Harvard. By the time she got her masters in 1978, she had already helped set up the development organisation Concern Universal. A year later she was working as a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists. By 1980 she had settled into her 20-year career with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

She served as chief of mission in India and as head of the UNHCR team in Macedonia during the Kosovo war. "In the evenings I would go to the border crossings and you could see thousands of people walking across." One night, the Macedonians decided they'd taken in enough, and guards began pushing people back across the border to where the Serbs were waiting. Some of those refugees were never seen again. "As UN officials, we protested, but it was a terrible experience to watch people being pushed back and not be able to do anything."

While Khan was wending her way from Dhaka to Skopje, Amnesty was on a journey of its own. The organisation was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson, an employment lawyer, after he read about two Portuguese students jailed by the Salazar dictatorship for drinking a toast to liberty. Its aim was to protect prisoners of conscience under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among those it would not support at first was Nelson Mandela, because he had advocated violence. Over the next three decades it expanded its remit, adding torture and disappearances, and winning, along the way, the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. Later came concern for refugees forced to flee from human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, arms sales to oppressive regimes, and the death penalty.

"Amnesty had its biggest exodus of members when it decided to pick up the issue of the death penalty; the US section was totally opposed," says Khan. "A lot of people also joined after that, because they thought it was right to campaign against executions."

But while all those extensions could be seen as connecting to the original concept of "prisoners of conscience", the change wrought at the turn of the century was viewed by a "strong minority" of Amnesty members as a stretch too far. The organisation began campaigning not under the Universal Declaration, which limits what states can do to their citizens, but under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which obliges nations to ensure their citizens have things like an adequate standard of living and the highest attainable standard of health. While the Universal Declaration grew out of the Enlightenment and the Second World War, the covenant has its roots in the Fabian Society and the socialist politics of the 1960s. It is deeply partisan, cutting sharply along the left-right divide in many countries.

In her new book, The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights, published in Britain this week, Khan reasons that without economic rights, there can be no human rights. A poor rural woman who can't afford the bus fare to visit the police or courts in the nearest town has no access to justice, for instance. "There is a link between discrimination and poverty. It's often discrimination that drives people into poverty, and the poor tend to be discriminated against."

It's a compelling argument, and one that many IoS readers will agree with. But it comes with a price attached. The more resources Amnesty pumps into campaigning against poverty and women's issues, the fewer it has available to defend prisoners of conscience. The world has plenty of organisations devoted to alleviating poverty, though often without the human rights angle, but few that are dedicated to prisoners of conscience, and none as effective as Amnesty.

The organisation spent a decade debating the issue before making its decision and hiring Khan to implement it. She took up her new post in London on the morning of 12 September 2001, less than 24 hours after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The "war on terror" that followed ushered in the sharpest curtailment of freedoms in the West since the Second World War. As Benjamin Franklin said: "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

Khan doesn't see things that way. "Loads of classical human rights problems, such as torture and cruelty in detention, were thrown up by 9/11, but we realised there were deeper problems. One was that the international community had ignored what was happening in Afghanistan. So it showed the indivisibility of human rights."

When we meet, Khan is preparing for a trip to Sierra Leone to launch an Amnesty campaign to raise awareness of maternal mortality, but she is vague about what she will do after she leaves the organisation. For those interested in human rights, the bigger question is who will replace her; Amnesty is still looking. If the next secretary general continues on the course that Khan has charted, perhaps the time will come to start a new group, one dedicated solely to prisoners of conscience.

CV

Born 1956, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh)

Educated LLB at University of Manchester, masters at Harvard

1977 Helped found Concern Universal

1979 Activist, International Commission of Jurists

1980-2001 United Nations High Commission for Refugees, including chief of mission in India and Macedonia

2001-2009 Secretary general, Amnesty International

Married to an economist, one grown daughter

'The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights', by Irene Khan, is published on Thursday by WW Norton

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