Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Irene Khan in translation

And here is posting number two on this cold bright blue February morning. There were some people who were interested in an English translation of the interview my colleague Sanne Rooseboom and I had with Irene Khan (51), secretary general of Amnesty International. The following is a translated excerpt of the original Dutch interview.
Photo credits:

'I expect a great deal from the US

Irene Khan is a petite woman with curly hair. The 51-year old Bengali Muslim has headed Amnesty International as Secretary General for more than seven years and has seen to it that the world’s largest human rights organisation is now also paying attention to poverty, discrimination and sexual violence. Khan was briefly in The Netherlands to deliver the ‘Auschwitz Never Again’ Lecture. Since 2004 this lecture is organized in the ‘Beurs van Berlage’ by the Netherlands Auschwitz Committee,

Your first working day at Amnesty was one day afer 9/11…
‘That was a strange start indeed. All my life I have been a Muslim, but after 9/11 this bit of identity suddenly became very important. One would almost forget that I am also a mother, lawyer, cook and Bengali.’

Many people think Islam and human rights are incompatible.
‘There are many democratic countries with a large Muslim population where the two do mix. In India the former president Abdul Kalam was himself a Muslim. Indonesia too, the largest Muslim country in the world, is a democracy. I am not denying there are political, economic and social problems, but it would be unfair to say that these countries have put democracy on a back burner. I really don’t see why religion should not go hand in hand with freedom and democracy. The real problem is that it is often abused for political reasons.’

A number of Muslim countries can’t be bothered by human rights, using Shariah law as a pretext not to do so.
‘If countries violate women’s rights and legitimize their actions through Shariah law, I really have my doubts whether such countries are actually bothered by the Shariah, for remarkably enough, Islamic law is not an issue when these very governments are doing business with the World Bank or the IMF. It simply proves that religion is used as a power instrument.’

‘I was in Sudan in 2004 to present the minister of interior affairs a report on rape as a weapon of war in Darfur. He threw it back in my face, finding it a lot of nonsense. ‘I do not believe you. Muslim men do not rape’, he said. ‘I could have contradicted him. Instead I chose to follow his line of reasoning. I replied: ‘Are you then saying that Muslim women are lying? Women we have all talked to?’ He did not reply.’

Many Muslims favour the death penalty, again feeling they are right because of Shariah law. What is your take on that?
‘Over the years I have spoken to many Muslim scholars on the subject. The Koran mostly certainly offers a way out of the death penalty and even to abolish it, simply by appealing to the state’s mercy.’

In 2005 you called Guantanamo Bay a ‘gulag of our time. Wasn’t that a bit over the top?
‘No, as I think it is the task of Amnesty to call a spade a spade and shake people up. At the time many people thought my wording was indeed too strong, but now you see that the media have started using the same words.’

That said, some ten million people died in the Russian gulag. In Guantanamo a couple of hundred people are detained without a trial.
‘It is not about quantity. I did not mean to say that Guantanamo is a gulag. It is all about what we accept. In the war on terror human rights are eroded and the world is letting it happen. The people detained in Guantanamo Bay have no rights. They are placed outside the law.’

What should happen with Guantanamo Bay?
‘It should be closed and prisoners should stand trial within the American justice system. Those who innocent should be sent home. If it not safe for some of them to return home, the US should look for a solution and Europe could help by granting asylum to ex-detainees.’

Don’t you think Amnesty is coming down too hard on the US?
‘I expect a great deal from the US and therefore take a tough stance towards this country, a country that functions as a role model. If we talk to the Russian president Vladimir Putin on human rights in Chechnya, he will immediately point at Guantanamo Bay. Not Sudan or Bangladesh. Of course, it doesn’t diminish Putin’s own responsibility, but it clearly shows that whatever the US are doing is seen as an excuse in the rest of the world.

Your organisation has broadened its focus on social rights and not just the death penalty and torture, as Amnesty once did in the beginning.
‘You have to look at the bigger picture. A person’s economic situation is just as important as one’s freedom of speech. Human rights are just as much about war, climate change and corruption. We can’t just focus on a specific number of human rights. Women in Bangladesh are fighting for their rights in a way the West has forgotten about. To these women, there is no difference between social or political rights.’

Are there any countries you would not want your 19-year old daughter to live in?
‘Oh, quite a few. I won’t name them, but there are so many countries where the treatment of women is downright outrageous.’

Any ideas what you would like to do after Amnesty?
‘I will at least stay on until the end of 2009. After that, I would most certainly continue with human rights. Or I will become a cook. I love cooking. Bengal food with western influences. A bit like me: Bengali with a twist.’