In 2008, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan was asked by Amnesty’s Executive Committee (IEC – now called the International Board) not to return for a third term. Khan’s Executive Deputy Secretary General Kate Gilmore was also dismissed. Khan then negotiated severance and compensation terms for both herself and Gilmore.

These agreement terms were later reported in a letter to Amnesty members by Peter Pack, then-Chair of the IEC.1 Pack reported that the amounts paid to Khan and Gilmore in 2009 accounted for no less than 4% of Amnesty’s annual budget. The letter stated that Khan’s total severance payment amounted to £533,103 ($858,000) – an approximate equivalent of one year’s salary at £191,697 ($309,000), plus back pay and relocation and housing expenses for that year. Total payments made to Gilmore in 2009 amounted to £325,244 ($523,600), which included a termination payment of £59,655 ($96,000) in addition to a 2010 salary and pension of £113,987 ($183,496).

The letter also revealed that the salary for the new Secretary General totaled £200,600 ($323,000): £192,800 plus £7,800 for housing. Pack defended the salary, insisting it was “lower than the heads of other major comparable global human rights organizations.”2 He also argued that “the nature of the settlement reached with Irene Khan, including the level of compensation, was in line with other organizations in similar circumstances in the UK” and that “the substantial majority reflected contractual entitlements.”3

These assurances were not sufficient to assuage grassroots members from individual country sections. The payments shocked and embarrassed Amnesty members and donors, who in good faith expected contributions to promote human rights at reasonable operating costs.4

In the wake of the outrage, Amnesty contracted an independent review of the incident. Dame Anne Owers, formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons, submitted an Independent Review Report in November 2011. Amnesty did not publicly release the report; it was only made available to Amnesty members who specifically requested it. However, a copy was also posted on an Amnesty Google Group open for membership to the public.. The document contains substantial criticisms of both the settlement reached and of Amnesty’s general management.

Owers found that, in both cases, the paid sums were higher than what Amnesty had originally reported: Khan was paid £561,736 ($904,000)5 not £533,103 ($858,000), and Gilmore was paid an additional £60,000 ($97,000) for a total of £382,989 ($616,000). Amnesty also paid legal fees for both Khan (£12,000 -$19,000)6 and Gilmore (£1,600.)7 Lastly Owers found an unexplainable £9,447 ($15,200) in Gilmore’s termination payment that seemed to have been made in error.

Owers’ report firmly rejected Pack’s characterization of the settlement as predominantly reflecting contractual obligations and being in line with conventional practices. Instead, in the case of Khan, only “around 40% of payments were contractually necessary,”8 and for Gilmore only 47% were necessary.9 Gilmore’s generous package was partially due to the fact Khan negotiated it “on terms that she provided to [Amnesty’s] own lawyers, and which were significantly more generous than the lawyers had advised was necessary.”10

In addition, a large part of Kahn’s non-contractual payment – £77,000 ($124,000) – was “solely in order to help compensate the SG [Khan] for UK tax liabilities on the settlement,” which the report found to be “a wholly inappropriate use of [Amnesty]’s funds.”11 It also found “a trebling of her housing allowance, and the late insertion of £30,000 of back pension contributions to the EDSG [Gilmore].”12

Owers also examined how such gross financial mismanagement occurred at Amnesty. She discovered that the IEC was unable to manage its negotiations with the outgoing Secretary General and her deputy, since it “lacked expertise in human resources management and was learning as it went along.”13 It was also “unfamiliar with UK employment norms.”14 Further, since the IEC is international in nature and spread around the globe, it had to rely on email and phone communications, without “open and face to face discussions.”

The IEC’s incompetence was evident by the fact that it reviewed the agreement only after it had been signed and had agreed to pay it.

Owers concluded:

I cannot find any evidence that, as stated in the letter, the IEC was advised that a year’s pay in relation to termination of contract was in line with other organizations in similar circumstances in the UK. I am advised that these payments, and in particular those arrived at through informal discussions, were in UK terms seriously excessive. 15

Most tellingly, the IEC appears to have been aware that its behavior was inappropriate, but justified the transaction because Amnesty International Limited (AIL) was not technically considered a charity due to legal structuring.16 Owers describes how, during negotiations with Khan, “the Chair expressed his relief that the SG was not employed by the charitable arm of [Amnesty], on the grounds that it would not then have been possible to make such a generous settlement.”17 Because of this blatant corruption, AIL has since elected to report its accounts as though it were a charity.  Regarding the payments to Khan and Gilmore, “it is, as already stated, very questionable whether the payments in question would have been appropriate under English charity law, or are in the spirit of the INGO Charter which AI has signed.”18

Another problem Owers noted was the lack of mechanism at the Board level to standardize salary levels, and this

is a source of considerable and unresolved tension within the movement. That was an important backdrop to the reported sense of outrage, particularly among those from the global south: the payments to the SG alone represented five years’ funding for one section in Latin America.19

Controversy surrounding salary was nothing new at Amnesty. While conducting research at Amnesty in 2002-2003, Hopgood observed that the discrepancy between top and bottom salaries within Amnesty rankled staff. He noted, “In one of the first interviews I did with a senior researcher…she remarked that Irene Khan was paid too much.”20

The scandal’s effect on both Amnesty and its country sections was considerable. At the time it was published, the Independent Review Report estimated that the cost of the scandal to Amnesty had reached €430,000. AIUK estimates that 1,000 supporters left in 2011 over this issue alone.21

Owers description of Amnesty’s senior leadership was also sharply critical. Owers argued that the pay-outs reflected Amnesty’s “inherent and systemic problems of governance and management.” Amnesty’s highest body, its International Executive Council (now the International Board), is ultimately responsible for a €200 million budget. The report shows this body to be fundamentally unprepared to lead a global organization. Its election at the biannual International Committee meeting takes place in the absence of a “procedure for a nominations committee to guide the electorate,” so that it becomes “difficult to ensure that there is a balance of successful candidates: by gender, geography, experience or expertise.”22 Further, having been democratically elected, the IEC does little to compensate for its members lack of experience or training. Owers found an absence of supporting frameworks including “sub-committees that such a Board would usually have (such as an effective finance and audit committee, and committees with oversight of remuneration and HR issues).” Finally, there was a “lack of robust internal processes of audit, financial systems, governance and personnel, and no in-house legal expertise.” 23

In describing the confusing relationship between Amnesty’s many organizations, she commented on the lengthy “protocol” between the IEC and the Secretary General, stating, “It is very unusual for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to have or to need such a document, which in itself suggests that there was a fear or expectation that relationships would become fraught: it reads rather like a pre-nuptial agreement.”24

Owers concluded by describing a cultural problem at Amnesty that reflects wider concerns:

I am struck by the number of people who spoke to, or provided evidence to, this review who spoke of a lack of trust and a conflictual culture within the IS and to some extent within AI more generally. That is outside the scope of this review, but if true it is something that all those within the movement, at whatever level, need to address.25

Amnesty released a response26 to the Owers report, “vow[ing] to take all necessary steps to strengthen the organisation’s management and governance.”  In December 2011, Amnesty claimed to have undertaken a skills assessment of IEC members and created Remunerations and Governance Committees. They also claim to have revamped structures at the IS, including  “a review of financial policies to ensure they are consistent, in line with best practice and clearly defined in terms of implementation,” the creation of a Finance and Audit Committee, and “the renegotiation of the union recognition agreement.”

In certain respects, these steps exacerbated other existing problems at Amnesty. The new committees added more bureaucracy to the convoluted bureaucratic structure of the International Secretariat.27 In addition, renegotiation with the union paved the way for embarrassing workers’ strikes in 2012.28