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U.N. investigator takes charge at Amnesty

Amnesty International named Agnès Callamard as its new secretary general, tapping a veteran human rights investigator to lead a 60-year-old organization.

U.N. special rapporteur Agnès Callamard
U.N. special rapporteur Agnès Callamard (AN/U.N. Web TV)

LONDON (AN) — Amnesty International named Agnès Callamard as its new secretary general on Monday, tapping a veteran human rights investigator to lead a 60-year-old organization operating in more than 70 nations.

The London-based organization said her four-year appointment was effective immediately. A French political scientist and human rights expert who oversaw the United Nations investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Callamard now leads a human rights-oriented NGO with 10 million supporters.

She succeeds Julie Verhaar, the acting secretary general and a former fundraiser for UNICEF, Greenpeace International and the Netherlands Red Cross.

“At a time when human rights are under unprecedented threat around the world, Dr. Callamard will lead, excite and rally the entire Amnesty movement to meet these challenges head-on,” Sarah Beamish, chair of Amnesty's international board, said in making the announcement.

“The combination of her intellectual acuity, her deep global human rights experience, and her courageous voice makes her highly qualified to front our movement," she said.

As a U.N. special rapporteur, or investigator, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions since 2016, Callamard headed the U.N. human rights team that concluded in 2019 that “credible evidence” existed to justify a criminal probe into Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other officials for carrying out a “premeditated extrajudicial execution” of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate at Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018, using Saudi government resources.

Since then, she said, the U.N. confirmed that a senior Saudi official recently issued a "brazen" death threat against her "in a high-level diplomatic setting."

But such threats "stalk all those on the front lines of human rights advocacy," said Callamard, who also headed Columbia University's Global Freedom of Expression initiative, the freedom of expression organization ARTICLE 19, and HAP International, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, which she founded.

Callamard has led human rights investigations in more than 30 nations and published articles on human rights, women’s rights, refugee movements and accountability.

After studying for her undergraduate degree from France's Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Grenoble, Callamard graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., a historically Black research institution, and received a PhD in political science from the progressive New School for Social Research in New York.

She said she felt honored to take charge of Amnesty, where she formerly worked from 1995 to 2001 in various posts, including as chef de cabinet for then-Secretary General Pierre Sané.

“Where governments and corporations seek to silence those who speak out against their abuses, to obfuscate the truth, and to undermine or reject human rights norms," Callmard said, "the rigorous investigations and uncompromising campaigns of Amnesty International are more vital than ever."