UN Human Rights Council: Jet-setting Ruddock leads Australia's pitch in tough race for seat

UN Human Rights Council: Jet-setting Ruddock leads Australia's pitch in tough race for seat

UN Human Rights Council: Jet-setting Ruddock leads Australia's pitch in tough race for seat

Updated 20 May 2017, 6:20 AEST

Philip Ruddock has been working overtime trying to earn Australia a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, but still faces an uphill battle against some European heavyweights.

Philip Ruddock has been circling the globe, selling Australia.

The former Liberal minister is Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights. He has been charged with spearheading the Government's push to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It's not cheap — Mr Ruddock has racked up bills of more than $200,000 visiting 23 countries, from Central America and East Africa to Scandinavia and the Caribbean.

But the Coalition insists it is money well spent.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop formally launched Australia's campaign at the UN in New York earlier this week and said Mr Ruddock was doing a "sterling" job.

Ms Bishop also gave a bullish assessment of Australia's chances of winning a seat.

"We've been doing a very good job in winning support. We've had many, many pledges, and I had a meeting today with a significant number of permanent representatives who pledged their support," she said.

"Australia is seen as principled, pragmatic, and yet a passionate advocate for causes in which we believe."

'A lot of Qantas pyjamas'

But foreign policy watchers are a little less sanguine than Julie Bishop.

The first problem is that we are up against heavyweights.

Australia is vying with France and Spain for two available seats. Earlier this year Lachlan Strahan from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Senate Estimates it was a "fairly tough race", calling France and Spain "formidable competitors".

Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute rates Australia's chances about 50-50. She said the main problem was that Australia's diplomatic footprint is relatively small.

"France has 267 missions, Spain has 212 and Australia an almost embarrassingly small network of less than 120 posts", she said.

"Having experienced diplomats with mature networks of contacts across the globe gives a stronger chance of winning a country's endorsement in a race like this."

Ms Bishop is pitching Australia as a "Pacific candidate", arguing the council would be more geographically balanced with us on board.

"Of course the competition is very tough, we're up against two European countries … and we've not served on the Human Rights Council before," Ms Bishop said.

"We shouldn't shy away from competition … we are standing because of the urging of like-minded countries who are of the view that countries like Australia, open liberal democracies who value human rights, ought to be promoting and protecting human rights."

But one government official said the campaign was "at risk of floundering". They said while Mr Ruddock was putting in "plenty of hours" he wasn't "cutting through".

"A special envoy has to be seen by other countries as someone with political heft," they said.

"The problem is that when you get someone who's clearly finished their political career like Ruddock has then it's hard to fight the impression that it's just a sinecure for an ex-pollie."

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also took aim at Mr Ruddock on Friday, saying taxpayers would not be impressed.

"It sounds like a lot of Qantas pyjamas for Mr Ruddock, doesn't it? It sounds like a waste of money to me … I think that's what taxpayers would think."

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been quick to defend Mr Ruddock's work, and his record. A spokesperson from the Department says he "has been unstinting in his efforts to abolish the death penalty and was a key anti-apartheid advocate in the Australian Parliament for many years".

Dollars and sense

There's also the question of money.

The Gillard government spent about $24 million on its successful tilt for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2012, which was kick-started by Kevin Rudd.

It also ramped up aid in Africa and across the Caribbean as it courted votes.

This time, it's different. The Coalition has been cutting back growth in the aid budget, and the Foreign Minister has made it clear there will be no cash splash in the contest for the Human Rights Council seat.

"The use of our aid budget to buy votes was not a practice I supported, nor do I support it now," Ms Bishop said.

"Our approach to winning a seat on the Human Rights Council is principled, pragmatic, practical — we're working very hard to persuade people to our point of view, not buy their votes."

But the government source said the "ugly reality" was that other countries vying for the seats would not be so principled.

"There's no real strategic direction to our campaign. We've spent a few bucks on [promotional] stationary and we've held a few events. That's it. It's got to be less piecemeal, and it's got to involve real commitments to countries we're talking to," they said.

That view isn't universal in the foreign policy establishment.

Other officials argue aid was rushed out the door during the scramble for the UN Security Council seat. They say it was impossible for Australia to keep track of the projects it funded, and they don't think that mistake should be repeated this time around.

'Not a negative'

Labor Senator Lisa Singh watched Australia's early campaign efforts when she spent three months as a parliamentary delegate to the UN General Assembly in New York.

She said the bid has been "hamstrung" by the Coalition's tough policies on people smuggling, and the plight of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

"People seeking Australia's help should be treated with dignity, not punished," Senator Singh said.

"Whilst I was at the UN there was criticism about Australia's treatment of refugees. I don't imagine that criticism has changed."

But the Foreign Minister maintains no countries are raising refugee policy during discussions on the bid.

"Not as a negative at all. It's been raised in the context of what Australia's doing to protect its borders and to stem the flow of people trafficking … not in the context of our bid," she said.

'More engagement, not less'

There's a broader question about Australia's candidacy: why do we want to join the Human Rights Council at all?

Several countries sitting on it right now — including Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Philippines — have atrocious human rights records. Some advocates say that makes a mockery of the whole body.

But the Foreign Minister maintains that's an argument for more engagement with the council — not less.

"If you don't stand yourself you really have little right to complain about others who do," Ms Bishop said.

Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute backs that assessment.

"As a robust democratic nation, Australia surely deserves to play this role from time to time," Ms Oliver said.

"With the current vice-presidents on the HRC being Egypt, Iraq, Georgia and Switzerland, it seems obvious the council would benefit from the participation of a country like Australia."