Irene Khan

In a recent open-letter to Prime Minister John Howard, Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International and recipient of the 2006 Sydney Peace Prize, demanded that Australian Guantanamo inmate David Hicks be brought home. “Try him here, in Australia”, she wrote. “If the Australian justice system, based on the rule of law and international human rights principles, can find no ground or evidence on the basis of which to prosecute him, then David Hicks must be released. It is that simple.”

Khan, the first woman, Asian and Muslim to lead the human rights organisation, last night delivered the annual Sydney Peace Prize lecture on the subject, “Making tough choices in a tough world: peace, security and human rights.” Previous winners of the Prize include Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi, recent Nobel recipient Muhammad Yunus, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Indian writer Arundhati Roy. In past years, winners have often incurred the wrath of conservative columnists, strangely confronted by the concept of peace-making, not war-mongering. They would have been very disappointed last night.

To a packed house at the Seymour Centre, over 700 people – with a wide variety of ages and backgrounds – Khan opened with her well-known statement from May that Guantanamo was the “gulag of our times”. She didn’t retract the statement and accused Western nations, including Australia, Britain and the US, of talking about democracy, but condoning and performing torture and human rights abuses in the name of “freedom.”

She remembered meeting Afghani President Hamid Karzai and his refusal to understand the importance of bringing warlords to trial for past crimes (perhaps because many of them control large swathes of his country, often backed by the US.) He talked of women’s education, but it was empty rhetoric. A report released this week by Womankind Worldwide found that there was little difference for Afghan women since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Khan also related a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She wanted to know his position on secret trials and indefinite detentions in Chechnya. He replied that the US locked up people and used secret trials, so why not Russia? Khan said that the “war on terror” had given any number of despotic regimes the political cover to carry out oppression against internal dissent.

In the current debate over Muslim values, Khan said nations must resist defining people simply based on religion. “I am much more than a Muslim”, she said. “I am also a woman, a resident of London, a Bangladeshi citizen, a lover of cooking and making jam.” She believed that Muslim women had the right to wear whatever clothing they wanted, and governments must respect that choice.

In her poised yet impassioned speech, Khan reminded the audience that the land of the “fair go” was eroding, and Australia was now viewed internationally as an outlaw in terms of environmental, refugee and anti-terror policy.