Establishment of Australia’s first Special Envoy on Human Rights a step in the right direction

The Human Rights Law Centre has welcomed the establishment of Australia’s first Special Envoy for Human Rights as a step towards strengthening Australia’s international human rights leadership.

Yesterday the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced that Philip Ruddock MP would take up the position and that he would actively promote Australia’s candidacy for membership of the UN Human Rights Council for the 2012-2020 term.

The HRLC’s Director of Advocacy and Research, Emily Howie, said that the Australia needs to improve its human rights record and that the HRLC has advocated for the establishment of an Australian human rights ambassador to promote and coordinate human rights within and across foreign policy since 2009.

“Australia needs to lift its game at home and abroad and have a coherent approach to human rights in foreign policy if it wants to be a true human rights leader. The Special Envoy can help to achieve this and strengthen Australia’s bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council,” said Ms Howie.

“It is critically important that the Special Envoy promote a principled and consistent approach to human rights in Australia’s foreign policy. There are some glaring inconsistencies between what Australia says in Geneva and the contempt shown for the UN by some politicians,” Howie said. 

Human Rights Council members are expected to “fully cooperate with the council,” but Australia has at times shown disregard for the UN system. In March 2015, in response to a UN expert’s report that Australia’s asylum seeker policies violated human rights law, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that “Australians were sick of being lectured to by the UN.” Mr Howie said that as a possible future member of the council, the Australian government needed to show greater respect and support for UN human rights mechanisms, including when they raise attention to Australia’s human rights problems.

Ms Howie said that any concerns about Mr Ruddock’s appointment to the post should not overshadow the important role the envoy could play.

“We shouldn’t pre-judge Mr Ruddock’s contribution. We have strongly opposed his positions on issues like asylum seeker policy in the past but recently we have appreciated his leadership on the abolition of the death penalty. This role has great potential” said Ms Howie.

The Human Rights Council is the UN’s preeminent human rights body, responsible for tackling the most serious human rights crises and for strengthening promotion and protection of human rights around the globe. 47 countries sit on the council, selected from five regional groups. Australia, Spain, and France will all campaign for two spots on the council for the Western European and Others group for the 2018-2020 term.

In September 2015, the Human Rights Law Centre and Human Rights Watch published a 36-page report on Australia’s bid, “Australia at the Human Rights Council:Ready for a Leadership Role?”. It called on Australia to demonstrate more leadership on global human rights issues, respond more constructively to concerns about its own human rights performance, and engage more closely with nongovernmental organizations.


For further information or media comments, please contact:
Tom Clarke, HRLC Director of Communications, on 0422 545 763 or