Amnesty International visits Bangladesh
4 January 2008
An Amnesty International delegation, led by Secretary General Irene Khan, is making a special trip to Bangladesh to discuss human rights issues with members of its government, political parties and civil society.
The mission comes on the eve of the anniversary of 2007's declaration of the state of emergency. It is the first visit of an Amnesty International Secretary General to the country. The spotlight will be on the rule of law, with special focus on the institutional changes necessary to promote and protect human rights in Bangladesh.
Representatives of the delegation will visit Dhaka and Rajshahi and will meet with survivors of human rights violations and members of civil society. They will meet senior members of the caretaker government, including the Chief Adviser Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the Adviser on Foreign Affairs, Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, and Adviser of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Barrister Mainul Hosein.
The time of the meeting with General Moeen U Ahmed, the Chief of Army Staff, is still to be confirmed.
Saturday 5 January DHAKA
The delegation will meet with NGOs and other members of civil society to discuss the current human rights situation within the country.
Sunday 6 January RAJSHAHI
The delegation will carry out a field visit to Rajshahi, the scene of anti-government protests in August 2007.
The delegation will visit projects by BRAC (an international development organization) in Tangail and Rajshahi, focussing on their human rights, legal services, microfinance, health, education programmes.
Tuesday 8 January DHAKA
Irene Khan will meet Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (Adviser on Foreign Affairs).
Irene Khan will deliver the keynote address at the event "Human rights: countering the disappointment of democracy" organized by Daily Star/Prothom Alo.
Wednesday 9 January DHAKA
Irene Khan will meet Barrister Mainul Hosein (Adviser of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs) and Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed (Chief Advisor of caretaker government).
Irene Khan will launch Amnesty International's new Bangla website during a discussion on freedom of expression.
Thursday 10 January DHAKA
Irene Khan will hold a press conference at the Sheraton Hotel, Dhaka, to present the findings of her visit.
Like most other countries in the world, Bangladesh has produced a fine number of influential and famous people. Amongst these is an individual known for her humanitarian spirit, Irene Khan. Currently the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Bangladeshi Irene Khan is making a difference in the world and the people of her homeland can beam with pride when they think of her achievements.
Irene Zubaida Khan was born in the Bangladesh city of Dhaka on 24 December 1956. During her youth Bangladesh had just received independence and was a struggling, poverty-stricken country, racked with the pains of civil war. Although part of a wealthier family, Irene Khan was terribly aware of the injustices and abuse of human rights going on around her, thus a keen interest to protect people from such violations developed in her. In time, her family had to move to Northern Ireland. After completing school she decided to study law at the fine University of Manchester as well as Harvard Law School where she went on to specialize in public international law and human rights.
In 1977 Irene Khan assisted in the establishment of Concern Universal. Following that, in 1979, she joined the International Commission of Jurists as a dedicated human rights activist. Always eager to do more, Khan went on to become part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the year 1980. She was given the privilege in 1995 of becoming the UNHCR Chief of Mission in India. Then, in 1998, she took the lead at the UNHCR's Center for Research and Documentation. Always eager to assist others, Irene Khan led an important mission during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. That same year she was assigned the role of Deputy Directory of International Protection.
Khan's amazing humanitarian career didn't stay there. In August 2001 she was appointed seventh Secretary General of Amnesty International. She stands out as the first women, first Muslim and first Asian to hold this position. Certainly she has proved herself a real asset. Right from the word "go" Irene Khan has done much to improve the operations of Amnesty International, beginning with the organizations response to crises. She has promoted women's rights in Pakistan, revealed human rights violations in Australia, assisted victims of ethnic strife in Burundi and addressed the issue of discrimination against the mentally disabled in Bulgaria, plus much more.
Irene Khan has received much deserved recognition for her fine deeds. She was honored with a Ford Foundation Fellowship. In 2002 she was the recipient of the Pilkington "Woman of the Year" Award. Then in 2006 she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize. Khan has also received academic awards and she was given an institutional honorary doctorate by the Ghent University in 2007. Indeed, Irene Khan is making a big difference in the world today and Bangladeshis can think of her with pride.
Irene Zubaida Khan, born December 24, 1956 in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), is the Secretary General of Amnesty International, a human rights organization. She is the seventh Secretary General.
Khan grew up in a relatively wealthy family in what was then the eastern, Bengali-speaking wing of Pakistan which was racked by poverty and civil war. During her upbringing, East Bengal was fighting for independence from Pakistan. Human rights abuses that occurred during the Bangladesh Liberation War in which the secessionists achieved independence, helped shape teenage Khan's activist viewpoint. She left Bangladesh as a teenager for school in Northern Ireland. Irene then went to England and studied law at the Victoria University of Manchester and then, in the United States, at Harvard Law School. She specialised in public international law and human rights, graduating in 1978. 
Human Rights Career
Irene helped to create the organisation Concern Universal in 1977, an international development and emergency relief organisation working in partnership with Children in Crossfire. She began her career as a human rights activist with the International Commission of Jurists in 1979.
Irene 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, Irene led the UNHCR team in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This led to her being appointed as Deputy Director of International Protection later that year. 
 Amnesty International career
Khan joined Amnesty International in August 2001 as its Secretary General. She is the first woman, the first Asian, and the first Muslim to hold the position of Amnesty International Secretary General. In her first year of office she reformed Amnesty's response to crisis situations and initiated a global campaign against violence towards women.
Khan received a Ford Foundation Fellowship and the Pilkington "Woman of the Year" Award 2002 as well as the Sydney Peace Prize 2006. In 2007 she received an institutional honorary doctorate at the Ghent University.
Bangladesh: Amnesty International calls for thorough unrestricted inquiry
into violations by security forces
In a letter to Bangladesh's leader, Chief Adviser Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed,
Amnesty International called on the authorities to ensure that all
violations reported in the context of recent student unrest are thoroughly
investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
In the letter, Amnesty International refers to a newly established judicial
investigation by Justice Habibur Rahman Khan which is to submit its
findings to the government on 11 September 2007.
The organization calls on the government to ensure that the inquiry is
fully independent, has access to all persons and information that it
considers relevant to its inquiries, and is able to ensure protection of
witnesses. The inquiry's conclusions and recommendations should be made
public, and the government should issue a public response indicating the
steps it will take to implement recommendations made by the inquiry.
The letter from Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan comes
after reports of excessive use of force by security personnel following
outbreaks of violence involving student demonstrators and law enforcement
personnel in Dhaka and several other cities between 20 and 22 August, 2007.
Use of excessive force by police as well as reports of torture and
ill-treatment of detainees while being interrogated by law enforcement
personnel is deeply concerning. Detainees have also been denied access to
lawyers and family members in clear violation of international human rights
Demonstrations occurred after an altercation between students and military
personnel attending a soccer match at Dhaka University on 20 August, which
resulted in a number of students being beaten by soldiers. In subsequent,
often violent, protests hundreds were reportedly injured as law enforcement
personnel used batons, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse
demonstrators. At least one person was killed after being hit by a rubber
bullet at Rajshahi University on 22 August, according to media reports.
Several law enforcement personnel were also injured by stones and bricks
thrown by protestors.
The organization also urged the authorities to take concrete measures with
regard to the reports of torture and ill-treatment of detainees at the
hands of members of the security forces. Amnesty International expressed
concern for those detained and for extended periods denied access to
lawyers and family members, including Dhaka University professors Harun ur
Rashid and Anwar Hossain, and Rajshahi University professors Sayedur Rahman
Khan, Abdus Sobhan and Moloy Kumar Bhowmik.
For more information please call Amnesty International's press office in
London, UK, on +44 20 7413 5566
Amnesty International, 1 Easton St., London WC1X 0DW. web:
2006 a crucial year for HR, democracy
Irene Khan tells The Daily Star about Bangladesh
Julfikar Ali Manik and Shamim Ashraf
Amnesty International (AI) Secretary General Irene Khan who has just been offered a second stint in office sees 2006 as a crucial year for political developments centring the forthcoming general election as uncertainty is rife about the election being held in a free and fair manner.
"This year is crucial for Bangladesh also economically and socially," the Bangladesh-born AI chief said in an interview with The Daily Star Wednesday during her stay in Dhaka on a family visit.
She strongly criticised the Bangladesh government for failure to check rampant corruption and human rights abuses in different spheres of the society, and for failure to form a human rights commission, an independent judiciary, and an accountable administration.
Irene discussed in detail her points on political crisis, rise of militancy, human rights condition, government's attitude to global human rights bodies' recommendations, repression on the minorities, extra-judicial killings, and trial of war criminals.
"Private sector is doing well and there are some positive trends. Bangladesh came out of WTO not with a good record and there was quite a lot criticism that Bangladesh actually did not negotiate well," she said.
The AI chief observed that the coming year is significant because some tensions with fundamentalist trends are emerging and clashing with the traditional secular and tolerant tendencies in the country.
In the political field, the big test is going to be the election, she said. "Many are saying whether the election will be held at all and if held, whether it'll be free and fair and what will be the consequences if it is not free and fair."
A sense of uncertainty and unease is widespread over holding of the election, she noted.
She said she fears there will be an increase in human rights violation in the build-up to the next election over the opposition's threat not to take part in the polls without reforms in electoral and caretaker government systems, and the apprehension about coming of a third force.
"People will take to the streets, there will be more demonstrations, more violence, one party against the other or other elements coming in that case. So, the risk of violence and human rights abuses will be high in this process," she said.
For human rights to thrive, a good strong democracy is a must and free and fair elections are a prerequisite to the democracy, she said. "You need simultaneously an independent judiciary, a dynamic civil society, free media and an accountable administration, none of which are existing in a perfect state here in Bangladesh."
Continues she: "Election process is being challenged for various reasons. Independence of the judiciary has been a big issue. "We're in a situation of a democracy that is emerging and at risk."
"I still hope our political leaders, in power and seeking power, will show political maturity. They will give us the leadership so that we can hope 2007 will give us a stronger democracy."
It is possible only if the leaders believe and hold themselves accountable to the people, she said, adding: "Accountability doesn't come just by dropping a paper in the ballot box once in five years. It's a process. Where is justice of attack on rights activists, politicians and political leaders, murder of people like Kibria and Ivy Rahman, attacks on common people and journalists?
"There should be trial and just trial for injustices and the government has to be open to the people and there should be parliamentary scrutiny, which is also missing in our system."
She said she hopes the political parties, international community and the government will sit together and work out a solution that'll respect human rights.
Asked about the possibility of a third force emerging if the situation worsens, she said, "I don't think people of Bangladesh will accept any situation where their rights are going to be trampled again, the political rights for example. I think the leaders know it. Whatever third force they might be, is also aware of it, I suspect."
"But what happens if the political process itself is corrupted? If a government comes through an election not held in a free and fair manner and if it's not able to govern the country properly? That'll be even more dangerous," the AI boss said.
"I think this government could have done many things, they came with a very powerful mandate. This is time for this government to put in place some lasting institutions. Another significance is how this government wants to be judged," she said.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONDITION
Irene identified people's growing awareness about human rights and mobilisation for themselves at different levels, flourishing civil society organisations and performance of private enterprises as positive trends.
"The great concern for human rights situation is impunity, absence of trial of injustice. The poison of impunity is deep-rooted in Bangladesh, right from the beginning. Many injustices have taken place since 1971 and trial of none of these has been made.
On coming to power, political parties think they got the people's mandate to rule without scrutiny, which simply cannot be acceptable in a democracy, she said.
"There is barely any parliamentary scrutiny or accountability to people, and corruption is rife. This sort of bad governance makes it very difficult for people to exercise their human rights. Misgover-nance is ruining the hopes of ordinary people," she said, stressing the need for proper institutions of governance and human rights.
The administration is getting worse in terms of governance and this has been consistently the pattern, she said, adding, "And this is where private enterprise and actors are stepping in to fill that vacuum."
The AI and international community will keep a close watch on the minority issue in the coming year because of the upcoming elections and the Bangladesh government is aware of it, she said.
"The government has taken an ambivalent view on the Ahmadiyya issue, sometimes we see them stopping the anti-Ahmadiyya activists but in other times they turn a blind eye. Our position is very clear, the government is bound to protect everyone within its territory from human rights violations."
First the government launched the Operation Clean Heart and then introduced the Rab. "This is not the way. The guilty people also have human rights and have to be tried justly. When you bring the army in and people get killed, people do not get justice. The army was given indemnity. This is not the way to administer law and order."
"The government has to work within the law to improve law and order. How can it expect the people to have confidence in the rule of law when the government itself has no confidence in the rule of law?" she observed.
The AI chief said it is worrying that the government is not paying heed to the concern of the AI and other rights organisations. "We had requested the present and past governments to put in place human rights institutions, national human rights commission. Both the last government and present government had promised to do it, but they didn't."
"Governments generally tend to believe that they need to control when there is any security problem and the global tendency is to reduce liberty and restrict human rights to increase security," she said, talking about newly introduced tele-tapping law.
"There is provision of restriction in human rights system in the cases of emergency and other situation as well. The way tele-tapping is being done is a matter of concern to me. There is no proper scrutiny, no debate in the parliament, whose phone is being tapped, and there is no system of redress. There is no protection of the individual," she added.
"There is a civil society and not-so-civil society and that's why we've seen the militancy. The vacuum that has been created because there is no governance which provides a space for bad elements to indulge in violence," Irene said.
Government first ignored the issue, then did nothing, and then is doing something half-heartedly, she noted. "Although these elements are few, their influence appears much because of the way the government is dealing it. I think the government needs to take it very seriously and get to the roots of the problem. So far their tendency is only to deal with the symptoms."
"The whole world is watching how the government deals with the militants because so far it was in a state of denial. The test will be in 2006 of what action the government takes and how effective those steps would be."
"The militants are trying to restrict tolerance and diversity. They are trying to restrict the space for liberal and alternative thinking," she said.
But Irene sees no success for the militants. "I don't think any kind of extremist ideology will succeed. Because people of Bangladesh are tolerant, there is diversity here. The militants can't destroy everything and take us back 500 years. What can happen is an increase in fear, insecurity and instability."
On international link, she said, "I don't know if there is an international link or not, but we should solve the problems inside the country. If our own house is in order, no foreign power can do anything to us."
Asked to comment on government reaction of expelling Abu Hena MP for his statement about militant network, she said, "Instead of being transparent, the government goes after whistleblowers like Abu Hena."
TRIAL OF WAR CRIMINALS
Irene finds it 'very important' to deal with the issue of war crime because international human rights trends are now towards justice and ending impunity.
"The wounds need to be healed, not to divide the country but to bring people together and provide them justice, so that people can forgive and move on," she said.
If the Bangladesh government feels it is going to be a very tricky situation to deal with, it can invite the UN Human Rights Comm-ission and other international bodies that have experience and seek their advice, she said.
GOVT'S IMAGE CRISIS
The government has to be aware that others cannot create its image. "It is the government who has the power to create its image or destroy it; others simply reflect and expose it. So, the responsibility has to lie with the government," she observed.
A ruling government cannot use others as an excuse not to discharge its own responsibility. "If it does so, it admits its own failure. If it accuses others of doing something that means the government is not capable of running its affairs," she said, adding that what the government is doing is putting pressure on the media not to expose the situation as it sees.
GLOBAL HUMAN RIGHTS CONDITION
Irene finds 2005 a mixed year. But the trend is in favour of Human Rights in the long run. "Even the most powerful country in the world was put on the docks of global conscience. Bangladesh cannot buck the trend, because the government will face the same pressures." "We're not in a hopeless situation in Bangladesh. I've found a growing awareness and maturity among the cross section of people here. The question is whether our leaders will show the same political maturity."
Irene Zubaida Khan is secretary general of Amnesty International, in London.
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."
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.
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.