Why China Picked Amnesty International's Ex-Chief as U.N. Free Speech Monitor | Opinion

China's appointment in April to a U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) panel that selects world human rights monitors sparked global outrage.

Even worse, it now turns out that among the 17 different appointments to be made this year by this five-nation consultative group, the vetting of the expert on freedom of speech—an appointment to be finalized today by the Council's plenary—was actually chaired by Beijing.

Only in the Orwellian world of the UNHRC would a totalitarian regime that systematically silences, jails and crushes dissenting voices, and which operates the notorious Great Firewall of China to block Internet content from its people, be allowed to lead the process in selecting the next U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression.

Out of 48 applicants worldwide for the prestigious six-year position, the top choice put forward by the China-led panel is Irene Khan, the former secretary-general of Amnesty International from 2001 to 2009.

But why would the Chinese Communist Party, which locks up democracy advocates like Wang Bingzhang, endorse a human rights champion?

A closer look at Khan's record—her role in moving Amnesty away from its founding mission of protecting prisoners of conscience, her growing ties to China's government—suggests Xi Jinping's advisers will have little reason to fear Khan's wrath.

Born in Bangladesh to an accomplished family of academics, doctors and military officers, Irene Zubaida Khan studied at boarding school in Northern Ireland, followed by law degrees at the University of Manchester and Harvard. After a 20-year career at the UN refugee agency, Khan took over the helm of Amnesty International in 2001. She quickly steered the organization off of its original focus.

In 1961, British lawyer Peter Benenson announced the founding of Amnesty with his article entitled, "The Forgotten Prisoners." The new group would defend the freedoms of speech, belief and religion by campaigning on behalf of those it called prisoners of conscience—any person imprisoned for expressing an opinion. During the height of the Cold War, persecuted dissidents in Communist or anti-Communist countries would receive equal attention.

Over the years, Amnesty championed countless political prisoners, fighting for fair trials and against torture. Its remit was widened in the 1970s to include opposition to the death penalty, but otherwise stayed focused on a limited mandate of civil and political rights—where one could easily point to both perpetrator and victim, as well as the nature of the crime.

But in 2001, with Khan's arrival, Amnesty underwent a tectonic shift, expanding its ambit to include economic, social and cultural rights. "The organization believes poverty is a human rights violation," Amnesty declared.

One result was that it seems to have become increasingly difficult for Amnesty campaigners to identify with any precision the perpetrator or victim of the violations they were meant to be opposing. The organization's mission was blurred.

"Working on individuals is important," said Khan, "but if we don't work on systemic change, we just exchange one group of sufferers for another."

In Khan's new definition, anything bad, such as maternal death, became a human rights violation.

"To insist on the rights of people living in poverty," wrote Khan in her 2009 book, The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights, "is to focus on those who have been excluded throughout history. They are the new forgotten prisoners." Khan took Amnesty's founding title and flipped it.

Amnesty's new philosophy found ready allies at the United Nations, where repressive regimes from Cuba to Iran to Zimbabwe were promoting a similar narrative. Don't pay attention to our denial of basic freedoms or torture, they argued, but rather help us with international aid so we can provide food and other necessities to our people. In truth, however, dictatorships like Mugabe's Zimabwe then, or Maduro's Venezuela now, are typically guilty of both torturing and starving their own people.

That Khan would be named the world's guardian of freedom of speech is somewhat ironic given her preference to fight poverty at the expense of her downplaying of basic democratic freedoms as some kind of Western luxury.

"If you look globally today and want to talk about human rights," said Khan in 2005, "for the vast majority of the world's population they don't mean very much. To talk about freedom of expression to a man who can't read the newspaper, to talk about the right to work to someone who has no job; human rights means nothing to them unless it brings some change on these particular issues."

Under Khan, Amnesty International seemed to lose its moral compass. In 2005, she called the U.S. prison for enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay the "Gulag of our time."

For Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post, who was equally "appalled" by the Bush administration's detention practices and interrogation policies, Khan's comparison with the colossal Soviet system of thousands of forced-labor camps demonstrated her ignorance, misuse of language and moral confusion.

Under Khan, Amnesty refused to distinguish between countries having blots on their systems, and those where the blots are the systems.

Khan left Amnesty in 2009, forced out under mysterious circumstances. Members of the organization were outraged to learn that she received a golden handshake worth some $700,000, a payment later criticized by an independent reviewer as "seriously excessive."

Three years later, Khan became head of the Rome-based International Development Law Organization, which promotes the rule of law in 38 countries. China is one of eight state donors to the agency, which repays the favor with a China fan page, starring Khan.

In a fawning 2018 speech in Beijing, Khan offered nothing but praise for China's Belt and Road Initiative, which "has the potential to improve the lives of billions of people," is "anchored in the purposes and principles of the United Nations," and can "contribute to strengthening international rule of law."

Khan did not mention how the $1 trillion-dollar infrastructure development and investments scheme is seen as a major factor fueling Beijing's persecution of the Uighurs, who live in a region at the heart of the network. Nor did she raise any human rights concerns at all about China.

Khan visited China repeatedly. In 2016, at Tsinghua University, she "spoke highly of China's contribution to the global sustainable development." In 2017 she was back, inaugurating an institute connected to the Belt and Road Initiative and signing agreements.

Faced with 48 candidates, it is entirely possible that China saw in Khan a natural friend and ally, who, as UN investigator on free speech violations for the next six years, will be uninterested or unwilling to take on Beijing.

The best way for Khan to prove otherwise would be for her to become an ardent advocate for China's dissidents, whistleblowers and prisoners of conscience.

Hillel C. Neuer is the executive director of UN Watch, an independent human rights organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​