A couple of months ago, I appeared before Philip Ruddock at a parliamentary inquiry he chaired into Australia’s advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty globally. I could sense his impatience. He had little time for speeches about how the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under international human rights law.
International human rights law itself seemed a second-order concern to Ruddock. He was interested in what, practically, Australia could do to bring about the end of a practice he regarded as self-evidently barbaric. He wanted useful examples of effective trade and diplomacy interventions from around the world.
Ruddock wanted action, not the empty rhetoric of naïve human rights activists. Now, as Australia’s special envoy for human rights – the role he will take on after his impending retirement from politics – he has the chance to realise that.
As a parliamentarian
Ruddock is an easy man for a human rights lawyer to hate. As immigration minister in the Howard government, Ruddock joined John Howard and his defence minister, Peter Reith, in falsely claiming that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard.
Ruddock attempted to amend the Migration Act to deny asylum seekers the right of appeal to the courts. He introduced the ominously named “Pacific Solution”, designed to allow the detention of unauthorised migrants on Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Later, as attorney-general in 2004, Ruddock oversaw the changing of the Marriage Act to ensure that marriage remains only between a man and a woman. He introduced counter-terrorism laws enabling preventative detention and control orders in the wake of September 11.
But against all this stands another image – that of Ruddock crossing the floor in 1988 to support Labor’s bill to ban race as a criterion for immigration. Howard was furious. Ruddock was reviled within his own party. Most believed he had destroyed his career over a matter of principle.
What can Ruddock do?
The qualifications for being a special envoy for human rights are not set out anywhere. If they include extensive experience engaging on human rights issues, then Ruddock is well qualified for the appointment. But if they include an unswerving commitment to upholding international human rights law whatever the political cost, then his appointment is a joke.
It seems likely the appropriate qualification is neither. It is actually something far more onerous, namely: can this person make a difference? On this point, there are a couple of things that bear consideration.
First, a special envoy’s job is not to please human rights activists by wandering around championing ideals. The job is to make a difference with people and countries who are not convinced by the rhetoric of international human rights law, who perhaps operate according to a moral code and set of priorities that are different to the views of UN bureaucrats sitting in Geneva and New York.
The Pacific, for example, is a region in which Ruddock has a long-standing, unfashionable and genuine interest. Many basic social and economic rights are unrealised and culture and religion carry an influence that the language of international human rights law does not. Ruddock’s interest in the Pacific could direct Australia’s attention towards the problems of this overlooked region in our own backyard.
Second, Australia is a middle power. It has little potential to influence change through economic leverage or military action.
Australia likes to believe it punches above its weight because it is a decent, multicultural nation, which usually ends up on the winning side of major global conflicts. But the reality is Australia’s influence works best when it is modest in its ambitions and humble about its own shortcomings. Ruddock is well placed to understand this and convey it in his representations to other nations.
Finally, Ruddock is a professional. Even his enemies admit that he is disciplined, hard-working and committed. In politics, this translated into a steely determination to execute the government’s policies regardless of the human cost, because he believed they were in Australia’s long-term best interests.
But, as a free agent – with a brief to independently promote a moral cause he believes in – it is possible (indeed likely) Ruddock will bring his discipline and determination to succeed to this entirely different role.
Strange things sometimes happen when politicians are unshackled from the constraints of politics. In Malaysia in the early 2000s, then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, appointed his former attorney-general, Musa Hitam, as chair of the country’s first human rights commission. As attorney-general, Musa had strengthened the repressive and loathed Internal Security Act, which allowed for the arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of dissidents and protesters.
But, as chair of the human rights commission, Musa argued passionately – and effectively – for the abolition of these measures.
Ruddock looked restless and jaded as chair of the death penalty inquiry. He looked as though he would rather be out there changing the world instead of listening to other people make suggestions about how it might be done. As Australia’s special envoy for human rights he will have the chance to do this. In this regard, his past will not necessarily be a liability.