There is a moment in a lawyer’s life, indeed in anyone’s life, after which nothing is the same. For Akbar Khan there have been many such moments. Khan’s journey to the top legal job at the Commonwealth Secretariat has seen him work in a variety of diplomatic roles, but it began as many legal careers do.
As a young international and human rights law student, Khan was inspired by his professor to work in human rights law.
Following a four-year stint at the commercial bar with Verulam Chambers Khan sought out his real passion and moved to the UN, beginning a career as a diplomat, which now sees him hold the grand title of director of legal and constitutional affairs and principal legal adviser to the secretary-general at the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Helping the Commonwealth’s smaller states develop their judiciaries might be his day job now, but his share of life-changing moments occurred during two years spent “surrounded by bombs” in Gaza, he says. They remain the “most profound” experiences of his life, he adds.
“The rule of law is often the first casualty of conflict,” contends Khan. “Gaza was under siege and we were with ordinary people being bombed by the Israelis. As a member of the UN you’re a witness to the plight of these people.
“They didn’t have food, water, a home. It’s in countries like that where the legal work of organisations such as the UN is most acute.”
Khan says his lasting memories are of when he was periodically forced to leave by the Israelis prior to a bombardment.
He describes how, with the Israelis fearful of injuring members of the UN, he would leave the city in a convoy, passing scared civilians by the side of the road who knew that bombs would soon follow in the wake of the departees.
The plight of the civilians became personal when, after marrying a Palestinian woman, he found he was leaving family behind as he moved to a safe zone.
In his current role Khan is on special leave from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to the Commonwealth Secretariat. The FCO allows its lawyers to move between organisations, and even to private practice law firms, to pick up knowledge and share best practice.
“The image of the bowler-hatted civil servant is outmoded,” states Khan, whose new role sees him promoting the rule of law in the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.
This includes building a legal framework to combat terrorism, money laundering and arms trading and implementing laws to promote respect for human rights.
“The rule of law isn’t an abstract concept to us, it’s about taking concrete steps to develop democratic institutions in a country,” insists Khan. “You have to have a strong rule of law in place to allow society to develop and grow.”
A “big part” of the secretariat’s role, he says, is helping member states to fulfil their international legal obligations. Some do not have the legal frameworks to enable adherence to, for example, declarations on human rights. This can see the placement of legislative drafters within those countries and mentors to train judges how to deal with gender inequality, homophobia and vulnerable witnesses in rape cases, for example.
Last year the Commonwealth celebrated its 60th birthday, and Khan admits that it is the task of today’s organisation to keep the Commonwealth relevant to the its younger inhabitants, who make up the majority of its two billion combined population.
Following the disappointment of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, where the fate of many poor Commonwealth countries were discussed, the influence of large political organisations such as the UN has been questioned. Are the FCO and UN still relevant?
“The value and credibility of these organisations are only as good as the members within it,” says Khan. “The irony of climate change is that the states that are the least polluting will suffer first. The Commonwealth helps give these states a voice.
“The failure of Copenhagen was not a failure of the UN. It was a failure of some member states within it, who put their own interests before the global need. The challenge for the Commonwealth is to focus on the youth, add value, not duplicate our work and continue to be trusted. Then we will have a future.”
Name: Akbar Khan
Title: Director of legal and constitutional affairs and principal legal adviser to the secretary-general
Total number of employees:300
Total legal capability:15
Main external law firm:Speechley Bircham
Total legal spend:Variable
Akbar Khan’s CV
1986-89: LLB (Hons), University of Reading
1989-90: BVC, Inns of Court School of Law, London
1990-91: LLM Masters in International Law, Jesus College, University of Cambridge; part-time postgraduate study in International Human Rights, Institute of International Human Rights, Strasbourg, France
1997-98: Part-time New York Bar Course
1990: Called to English bar (Middle Temple)
2000: Called to New York bar
1991-92: Pupillage, I Crown Office Row
1993-97: Barrister, Verulam Chambers
1997-2000: Legal officer, UN, Geneva
2000-02: Senior legal adviser, UN Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees
2002-06: Legal diplomat, HM Diplomatic Service
2006-09: Legal adviser, British Embassy, The Hague
2009-present: Director of legal and constitutional affairs and principal legal adviser to the Secretary-General, Commonwealth Secretariat