Irene Zubaida Khan

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Irene Zubaida Khan (born 24 December 1956) was the seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International, in London from 2001 until her resignation on 31 December 2009. She was appointed as a member of the Charity Commission of England and Wales on 1 January 2010[1], but left this position after her secret Amnesty International payoff of over £500,000 became public.[2]

Khan joined The Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper, as consulting editor on 15 May 2010.[3] She is the Chancellor of the University of Salford.[4]


Irene Khan was born in Dhaka (now capital of Bangladesh, but then in East Pakistan) in 1957, into a relatively wealthy family — her father was a doctor and her grandfather was a lawyer who had gone to England at the age of 14 and studied law at Cambridge University before returning to what was then British India.

Khan grew up East Pakistan and in Northern Ireland where she was sent in 1973 by her family to study for her A-levels. She says that:

"I went from one civil war situation to another – it was pretty violent at that time in Northern Ireland. I went to a Roman Catholic boarding school in County Down and my sister went to the state-run school, which in those days was mainly Protestant, so the two of us have a rather different experience of Northern Ireland."

Amnesty's first woman and first Muslim Secretary General

Khan joined Amnesty International as the organization's seventh Secretary General in August 2001. She was the first woman, the first Asian and the first Muslim to guide the world's largest human rights organization.

In her first year in office, Khan led high level missions to Pakistan during the bombing of Afghanistan, to Israel/Occupied Territories just after the Israeli occupation of Jenin, and to Colombia before the Presidential elections in May 2003. She called for better protection of women's human rights in meetings with President Musharraf of Pakistan, President Lahoud of Lebanon and Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh. She has initiated a process of consultations with women activists to design a global campaign by Amnesty International against violence on women.

Khan has been keen to draw attention to hidden human rights violations. In Australia, she drew 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.[5]


Interested in working directly with people to change their lives, Khan 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.

Khan joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1980, and worked in a variety of positions at Headquarters and in field operations to promote the international protection of refugees. From 1991-95 she was Senior Executive Officer to Mrs. Sadako Ogata, then UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She was appointed as the UNHCR Chief of Mission in India in 1995, the youngest UNHCR country representative at that time, and in 1998 headed the UNHCR Centre for Research and Documentation. She led the UNHCR team in Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, and was appointed Deputy Director of International Protection later that year.

Khan studied law at the University of Manchester and Harvard Law School, specialising in public international law and human rights. She is the recipient of several academic awards, a Ford Foundation Fellowship, and the Pilkington "Woman of the Year" Award 2002.[5]


In February 2011, newspaper stories[6][7][8] in the UK revealed that Khan had received a payment of UK £533,103 from Amnesty International following her resignation from the organisation on 31 December 2009,[9] a fact discovered in 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. [9] The deputy secretary general, Kate Gilmore – who also resigned in December 2009 – received an ex-gratia payment of £320,000.[9][10] Peter Pack, the chairman of Amnesty's international executive committee, said 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 March 31st 2010 include payments made as part of a confidential agreement between AI Ltd and Irene Khan."[10] and that "It is a term of this agreement that no further comment on it will be made by either party."[9] On 21 February 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.[9] 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."[9] Pack also stated that Ammesty was "fully committed to applying all the resources that we receive from our millions of supporters to the fight for human rights".[9] In a statement[11] released by Pack following the media coverage of the story, Pack described the decision to award the payment to Khan as the "least worst option".[12] 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 subsidizing a fat cat payout. This will disillusion many benefactors."[10]

On 14th March 2011, Irene Khan resigned as UK Charity Commissioner, a public office taken up by Khan in early 2010 after leaving Amnesty, citing lack of time due to overseas commitments. Some had questioned Khan's appointment to the board of the charity regulator in the aftermath of the pay-off scandal. Announcing Khan's resignation from the Charity Commission, Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, said: "Charities have a critical role to play in the Big Society and the Charity Commission, as the independent regulator has the important job of supervising the sector and preserving public confidence in charities" [13]


  1. "Board Members and Directors' Group", Retrieved 22 February 2011.
  2. Civil Society.  Irene Khan resigns from Charity Commission board. Civil Society.
  3. Irene Khan - Daily Star The Daily Star
  4. Amnesty International's Secretary General becomes the University of Salford's new Chancellor.  University of Salford.  Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Irene Khan - Biography Amnesty InternationalTemplate:Dead link
  6. Amnesty’s pay-offs spark outrage. 20 February 2011. 
  7. -pay-offs-bosses.html Amnesty’s secret £800,000 pay-offs to two bosses....which it doesn’t seem very keen to talk about”. 19 February 2011. 
  8. Letters. 6 March 2011. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Tania Mason, _ has_no_jurisdiction_over_board_members_payment_from_amnesty Charity Commission has 'no jurisdiction' over board member's payment from Amnesty,, 21 February 2011. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 John Chapman, Amnesty boss gets secret £500,000 payout,, 19 February 2011. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  11. "A letter to all AI members and staff from the International Executive Committee", Retrieved 2 March 2011.
  12. Niki May Young, "Paying off Khan was 'least-worst option' according to Amnesty's IEC chair",, 1 March 2011. Retrieved 2 March 2011.
  13. Civil Society.  Irene Khan resigns from Charity Commission board. Civil Society.