Special Envoy on Human Rights. Ruddock. What?

Special Envoy on Human Rights. Ruddock. What?

Spencer Zifcak. – 2 March 2016

Spencer Zifcak

n 2003, I wrote a short book entitled Mr Ruddock Goes to Geneva. The book was not as superficial as its title might have suggested. It was in fact a serious study of Australia’s vexed relationship with the UN Human Rights Treaty System. My argument was that the Howard Government should have given the recommendations from UN Human Rights Treaty bodies about ways in which Australia could improve its observance of human rights more thoughtful consideration.

Instead, the Government had adopted the habit of rejecting any criticism of its human rights record out of hand. This came at the cost potentially of retarding the interests and well-being of many disadvantaged Australian citizens, not least those of the nation’s indigenous peoples and those seeking asylum in the country.

The book’s title, however, had meaning. It referred to a now legendary performance by then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, before the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in its 2002 periodic review of Australia’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Mr Ruddock’s appearance took place against the background of a considerable change in the Government’s attitudes and actions in relation to human rights. The Government had wound back native title. It had steadfastly refused to apologise to or compensate the stolen generations. Aboriginal reconciliation had ground to an acrimonious halt. In response to a surge in people seeking political asylum, the Government had hardened the policy of mandatory detention, and built far flung detention centres in which asylum seekers were detained behind barbed wire fences.

Mr Ruddock’s performance before the UN Committee was, by any account, a dismal failure. His demeanour was arrogant and condescending. His arguments served only to harden the Committee’s opinion that Australia, a nation whose human rights record had been admired, had joined the ranks of countries known routinely to violate the freedoms and entitlements of their citizens.

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Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University and Immediate Past President of Liberty Victoria