American University of Beirut

President's Speech - Irene Khan

Dr. John Waterbury's speech
introducing Irene Khan

Irene Khan was born in East Pakistan which, after a bloody war of liberation, became Bangladesh. The war led Irene Khan's family to send her to the relative safety of Northern Ireland. She went to study law at the University of Manchester in the UK and then at the Harvard Law School where she graduated with an LL.M in 1979.

Her long and distinguished career in international human rights began immediately when she joined the International Commission of Jurists. In 1980 she went on to the UN High Commission for Refugees where she worked for twenty years, served as country representative in India, and undertook missions to trouble spots such Kosovo and Macedonia in 1999.

She became Secretary General of Amnesty International in 2001 at a time when, in her words, the war on terror had provoked a back lash against the protection of human rights. She led AI against this back lash and has, as well, campaigned aggressively for combating violence against women. She is her own best spokesperson.

On December 10, 2006, International Human Rights Day, in the West Bank, Irene Kahn declared: "Today far too many leaders are trampling freedom and trumpeting an ever-widening range of fears: fear of being swamped by migrants; fear of 'the other' and of losing one's identity; fear of being blown up by terrorists; fear of 'rogue states' with weapons of mass destruction."

Fear thrives on myopic and cowardly leadership. There are indeed many real causes of fear, but the approach being taken by many world leaders is short-sighted, promulgating policies and strategies that erode the rule of law and human rights, increase inequalities, feed racism and xenophobia, divide and damage communities, and sow the seeds for violence and more conflict.

The politics of fear has been made more complex by the emergence of armed groups and big business that commit or condone human rights abuses. Both - in different ways - challenge the power of governments in an increasingly borderless world. Weak governments and ineffective international institutions are unable to hold them accountable, leaving people vulnerable and afraid.

History shows that it is not through fear but through hope and optimism that progress is achieved. So, why do some leaders promote fear? Because it allows them to consolidate their own power, create false certainties and escape accountability.

Many of us at AUB and many Lebanese remember with pride the seminal role played by Professor Charles Malik in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights sixty years ago. I have no doubt that Professor Malik would be equally proud of Irene Khan for carrying on his legacy and his mission. We are proud to welcome her back to Lebanon and to AUB where, we hope, her voice will always be heard.

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