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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Amnesty's new agenda
Irene Khan
Ms Khan took over just one month before the 11 September attacks
Amnesty International secretary-general Irene Khan has told the BBC how her drive to widen the interests of the organisation stems from her childhood in Bangladesh.

Ms Khan, who took over as head of Amnesty in August 2001, has expanded Amnesty's brief to include rights of women and refugees, in addition to the core campaigns against torture and wrongful imprisonment.

Ms Khan said she felt that the change was due to world politics - particularly after 11 September 2001 - which had altered people's perceptions.

"The shift has happened primarily because of the human rights problems that we see around us in the world today," Ms Khan told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"More and more people are being targeted not necessarily for what they do but for who they are."

Discrimination and violence

Ms Khan said examples were women, religious minorities and racial minorities.

"Also there is a greater realisation that human rights is not only about being free from arbitrary detention and having a right to a fair trial - it's also about having access to basic services, food, water, health, education.

I lived through a civil war in Bangladesh and that had a great impact on me
Irene Khan
"It's about addressing issues of poverty, addressing issues such as discrimination, and violence against women.

"As Amnesty has realised the importance of taking a more comprehensive approach, our own work has moved into these area."

Amnesty has been campaigning against human rights abuses for 40 years. Ms Khan had worked for the UN as High Commissioner for Refugees for 20 years before taking her post.

But she said her ideals had come from her childhood, growing up in war-torn Bangladesh and seeing the devastating effects of both conflict and poverty there.

"I myself, coming from a developing country and being a woman, am delighted that we are shifting in this direction," she said.

"In Amnesty I can't take credit for the entire shift because I think a lot of good work has gone into this by my predecessor and others.

"But certainly what I hope I can bring to it is my perspective as a woman from a developing country."

And she outlined how her upbringing had deeply affected her personal philosophy.

"I think it evolved. I lived through a civil war in Bangladesh and that had a great impact on me," she stressed.

"I was 14 at that time. To watch the killings, to watch the awful atrocities - a lot of that happened. My best friend's father was killed; there were a lot of dead bodies lying around.

"I also saw how people got together and worked and helped each other.

"Then when I went abroad and wanted to study law it seemed to me that my contribution really lay in trying to improve this situation through human rights work, and that's how I got into it."

Tough times

Ms Khan took over at Amnesty one month before the 11 September terrorist attacks.

She said that the aftermath of the attacks - and particularly the way the US had responded to them - had been a great challenge to the organisation.

Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay
Ms Khan believes the War on Terror has compromised human rights
"It was very challenging because suddenly the complacency of human rights activists - who had believed over the past decades they had achieved a great deal - suddenly that complacency was greatly challenged by the so-called War on Terror and by the approach of many governments to tightening on civil liberties," she said.

"There was a huge backlash against human rights.

"Times were indeed tough here at Amnesty. At the same time I think it helped us to be galvanised into action.

"It made us realise that the issue of security is broader that just securing states - it's not only about protecting people against attacks, it's about looking at what the real sources of insecurity are."

Ms Khan stressed that tackling violence in society towards any group was now one of the organisation's key objectives.

And she highlighted Amnesty's drive to campaign against violence against women.

"Certainly there is a lot more pressure coming from women themselves, there is still a reluctance in many countries, among many governments, to deal with violence that they believe is happening against women in what they see as the 'private sector'," she said.

"Our argument now is that when violence against women occurs and the authorities do not take adequate measures to protect women, then it is a public issue - it's an issue of public concern, it's an outrage and a total human rights abuse.

"We should act against that violence in the same way we should act against torture and prisons."

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