American University of Beirut

Irene Khan's Acceptance Speech

Remarks on acceptance of
Doctor Honoris Causa
Irene Khan, Secretary General, Amnesty International,
American University of Beirut
Lebanon, 28 June 2008

It is a great honour to receive this award from such a prestigious institution. In a region torn by violence and injustice, the AUB has persisted in its mission to spread liberal thought and learning. 

I am particularly touched that this award comes in the 60th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Lebanon was one of the few countries from this region that was a member of the UN when the Universal Declaration was adopted in 1948. 

I am very humbled by this honour, as I have done little to deserve it. I failed to complete my doctorate in law. I did complete my law degree but failed to become a practising lawyer. I failed fast - and quickly decided that if law had any meaning for me, it was as a tool for human rights action - so in bestowing this honour on me, I feel the trustees are not just honouring me but human rights activists - and particularly my friends and colleagues in Amnesty International. 

Thanks to their work and that of many others, much has been achieved in human rights. But complacency is not a characteristic to be found in a human rights activist. There is much that remains to be done and as an activist, I believe we cannot rest. 

We see threats and we want to tackle them. We see wrongs and want to set them right. We stand up and speak truth to power and hope that by doing so we can make the world a safer and fairer place. We see ourselves as change agents but some others see us as a dangerous because we dare to throw light on human rights scandals, dare to challenge governments and hold them to account for their broken promise on human rights. 

Unfortunately, the promise of human rights is being daily betrayed: betrayed in times of war as well as peace: here in the Middle East or in western democratic countries, through old fashioned repression of civil and political rights and through the widespread neglect of economic and social rights. 

Eleanor Roosevelt, the key architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once said: "where ... do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere." 

The few minutes I have here today are too short to tell you about the old woman I met in Darfur, who told me how her village was attacked, how all the men were killed so that there were none left to bury the dead and she had to bury the dead. Or the story of the sixteen year old girl I met in the women's prison in Kabul who was abducted and raped and when she ran away from her oppressor the police put her in prison to keep her safe from her own family who wanted to kill her because they say she destroyed their honour. 

I do not know what has happened to that girl or that woman - what I do know, sadly, is that there are many more women and girls like them today in need of protection, and the world is failing them. Powerful governments - democratic governments as well as despotic ones . torture people and lock them up without charge and trial and say that they are fighting terrorism to make the world a more secure place. Meantime, the real sources of insecurity go unaddressed: whether it be the proliferation of arms, the pernicious spread of HIV/Aids, or the debilitating effects of poverty and inequality. Around the world security of the state is trumping the security of people. The space for tolerance and dissent is shrinking. 

There are times when I am angered by my own impotence, burdened by my own guilt of how little I can achieve. 

But I am deeply inspired by the resistance and resilience of so many ordinary, unsung heroes of human rights - who are not honoured like me but who are making a difference every day by their courage. For instance, the farmer I met in the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian territories a year ago. He gave me the last bottle of oil from his olive trees which he can no longer cultivate because his orchard now lies on the other side of the Wall that the Israeli authorities have built and they are denying him access to it. He told me he is contesting the decision and I have learnt since then that he has lost his case but he is appealing. I know that he will never give in to injustice. 

I am inspired by a woman whose name I do not know but whom I met earlier this year in a village in Bangladesh, my own country. I met her when I went to visit a legal literacy class run by a NGO in a remote village. The women were sitting on the floor, on bamboo mats. They cannot read or write, so the teacher was using posters with graphic designs to explain their legal rights. Their lesson that day was on the law prohibiting child marriage and requiring the informed consent of a woman to marriage. I spoke to one of the woman. She told me she had received a micro-credit loan from the NGO and was going to use it loan to buy a sewing machine and set up a small tailoring business for herself. Why was she in this class? I asked her. "I want to know my rights," she says. "I don't want my daughters to suffer the way I have, and so I need to learn how to protect my rights and theirs." 

Human rights have gone global by going local. There is a bigger humanity out there that is saying, "Injustice has to end, things must change". I could end with the words of the Greek historian, Thucidides, "The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage" - or in the words of a character from the Rocky Horror show, "Don't dream it - be it". 

Thank you for this honour.

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