Philip Ruddock is the right choice for Special Envoy on Human Rights – for all the wrong reasons

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s endorsement of Philip Ruddock’s appointment as Australia’s Special Envoy on Human Rights to the United Nations characterised him as “well-qualified to advocate and represent Australia’s human rights views and record”. The devil is in the accuracy of this statement. Over the past fifteen years, Australia has risen as a human rights violater to become an international pariah, with Ruddock entwined in many of the policies that have created this reputation. Indeed, the announcement came on the heels of the High Court legitimising offshore detention, a system of which Ruddock was one of the original architects, and which has been central to international criticism of Australia.

The shape of this system began in August 2001, when Ruddock was Minister for Immigration. A Norweigan Shipping Vessel, the Tampa, rescued a boat of asylum seekers off the coast of Christmas Island. A stand off ensued when the Australian Government refused to allow the Tampa to enter its waters, then, after the Captain declared an emergency and entered anyway, refused to allow the asylum seekers to be transferred onto Australian territory. Eventually the asylum seekers were offloaded onto an Australian Navy Vessel and taken to Nauru.

This episode led to the development of the “Pacific Solution”, a policy aimed at preventing asylum seekers from technically entering Australian territroy and therefore coming under Australian jurisdiction. It was in fact during the stand-off that the government introduced some of the legislation. The core components of the Pacific Solution were the excising of various islands from Australia’s migration zone; Defence Force powers to intercept vessels carrying asylum seekers; and the placement of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres. It has resulted in asylum seekers being housed in squalid and unsafe conditions; subjected to abuse and injury at the hands of those tasked with looking after them; denied proper medical treatment; developing severe mental illness, self harming and attempting suicide; being indefinitely detained; and, in a number of cases, dying or being killed. Children are amongst them.

Since its inception, the Pacific Solution has been extensively criticised by human rights organisations, law experts and various arms of the United Nations itself for its violation of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture. These are not merely academic or technical legal instruments, but documents constructed specifically to acknowledge, represent and champion human rights worldwide by the very body to which Ruddock will now be an envoy. It was as a result of the Pacific Solution that Amnesty International requested that Ruddock stop wearing their badge. (When he refused they went public with their request to distance themselves.)

Not long after the Tampa standoff, in October 2001, the Australian government reported that asylum seekers on a damaged vessel intercepted by the Navy had thrown their children overboard, and produced a photograph of children in the water as supporting evidence. They claimed the asylum seekers were trying to force a rescue to get them to Australia. In a later inquiry this was shown to be a complete fabrication – not only were there no threats but the photograph had been taken after the boat sank. The government knew this when they released the photograph; in hindsight it appears designed to sure up public support for their policies with a federal election announced literally the next day.

Ruddock’s role then segwayed into ignoring, if not endorsing, human rights violations against some of Australia’s own citizens. David Hicks was captured by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in December 2001 and handed over to the US Army who sent him to Guantanamo Bay. When Ruddock became Attorney General in 2003, Hicks had already been detained in Guantanamo Bay for nearly two years without charge and outside any system. A year later, in 2004, the Military Commissions were established and Hicks was charged with “providing material support to terrorism”; in 2006 the Military Commissions were subsequently ruled unconstitutional. A new system of Military Commissions were established and Hicks eventually plead guilty in 2007 out of desperation to get out of Guantanamo after six years in detention, subject to solitary confinement and ongoing torture. The apparent evidence against him has never been examined, and nothing of any significance has ever been presented. Since then, the US Supreme Court has declared the charge invalid as it was retrospective and ruled it is “not a war crime” and Hicks’ conviction has been overturned by the Military Commission Review. The US Government last year stated that he is innocent.

David Hicks was not the only Australian incarcerated at Guantanamo. Now almost forgotten, Mamdouh Habib was arrested in Pakistan in October 2001. By extraordinary rendition he was transferred to Egypt where he was subject to five months of torture before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay. Habib spent three years imprisoned without charge before being released. No evidence of his alleged involvement with terrorism has ever surfaced.

While other countries refused to allow their citizens to be subjected to US detention, Guantanamo Bay and the Military Commissions, the Australian government, with Ruddock as Attorney General, accepted the US approach. At times they even supported the vague and unsubstantiated “evidence” of Hicks and Habib’s involvement with terrorism that the US fed to the public to justify their incarceration. Once again, this was against a backdrop of human rights organisations, law experts and the United Nations criticising the detention system for violating the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture.

The similarity of criticism of the Pacific Solution and Guantanamo Bay is not coincidental. Both were designed to arbitrarily detain people outside the jurisdiction of their country’s courts. They were also set up at a similar time (the final quarter of 2001) and relied on the threat of terrorism as justification and to gain public support. Perhaps also the inspiration for both was drawn from Guantanamo Bay’s use as a place to detain asylum seekers in the 1990s. It is therefore unsurprising that Ruddock did not challenge the United States. However, this lack of opposition adds to the picture that over his tenure Ruddock showed a specific and systematic disregard for some human rights and some of the most important and significant international laws.

Also of note is Ruddock’s involvement in ensuring ongoing discrimination against same sex couples. In 2004 as Attorney General he championed legislation to make two amendments to the Marriage Act. The first was to recognise the definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman” and the other was to specifically deny recognition of same sex marriages from overseas. The amendments were in direct response to the legitimising of same sex marriage in other countries, to stop any possibility of it happening in Australia. They were even rushed through Parliament to prevent same sex couples from gaining recognition before they became law.

Both these Amendments have left Australia lagging behind the rest of the Western world in recognising and ending sexuality discrimination. The latter amendment in particular came into focus recently when a British man died while honeymooning in Australia and his husband (under British law) was not recognised. By contrast, Australia recognises polygamous marriages from overseas.

In her announcement, Julie Bishop noted Australia’s human rights priorities to be advocated by Ruddock as Special Envoy: “good governance, freedom of expression, gender equality, the rights of indigenous peoples, and national human rights institutions”. The list is notable for its exclusions – the very areas Australia has been called out for contravening, with Ruddock’s involvement.

Human rights are all inalienable. They are not a box of chocolates from which countries pick their favourites and then toss away the rest. They are not forfeited by people under certain circumstances. Moreover, the Conventions to which Australia is a signatory are meant to be honoured, full stop. They are not marked “only for adherence when convenient” and “for use as a political weapon against other countries”. Yet this Forrest Gump approach has been a theme of both Australia’s and Ruddock’s.

In the lead up to the executions of two members of the Bali 9, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Ruddock, who was Attorney General at the time they were arrested, stated that he did not know the Australian Federal Police were planning to share intelligence with Indonesia and that had he known he would have raised concerns about the death penalty given his stance on it (which is anti). So Ruddock endorsed one element of the ICCPR in that matter but ignored others in the case of David Hicks. Ruddock was also one of the authors of the narrative that asylum seekers relinquish their rights by attempting to get to Australia by boat and that Hicks and Habib were not entitled to theirs because they were suspected of terrorism.

Whether Ruddock’s stance on these issues was personal, purely for political purposes or a genuine representation of Australia’s position makes little difference. Australia has a significant credibility issue on an international level, particularly with the United Nations, and Ruddock is wrapped up with that. The announcement that he is to be Special Envoy on Human Rights suggests that at best Australia will go forward advocating on an extremely limited platform and at worst it is our intention to conclusively dispense with recognition of certain human rights and to pursue this campaign at an international level.

This is a great shame for a country that advocated so strongly for education to be included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that we came within a handful of votes of achieving it.

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Philip Ruddock is the right choice for Special Envoy on Human Rights – for all the wrong reasons

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