Meet the alumnus who spent his life working in some of the world’s most dangerous locations

28 February 2017

Recent events have cast Australia’s foreign policy and diplomacy into the limelight; yet few realise how risky and demanding the work of a diplomat can be.  UQ recently caught up with Mr David Ritchie AO (Bachelor of Arts (Honours) ’75, Doctor of Letters honoris causa ’16) to discuss his career as a diplomat, working in some of the world’s most dangerous locations.

Mr Ritchie remains the only Australian diplomat to have served on both sides of the Berlin Wall and then in the unified Germany. 

His first posting was in Bonn, the Cold War Capital of West Germany; he later served in East Berlin, in what was then known as East Germany and has recently completed a third posting as Australian Ambassador to the reunited Germany.

“One of the most important lessons you learn about the world, as a serving foreign policy officer, is that things always change, often unexpectedly, and almost nothing remains static,” said Mr Ritchie.

“That’s best highlighted by thinking about the world as it was when I arrived in Bonn, in 1975 on my first posting.

“There was a divided Germany, the Soviet Union dominating Eastern Europe, a major hostile player opposite the United States and the threat of nuclear war.

“I could go on, but that world was different in almost every way to today.  Change – and the certainty of change – is the only constant,” he said.

In addition to his work during the Cold War, Mr Ritchie has encountered many hostile situations during his career. Including his time as Ambassador to Italy (accredited to Libya), securing the safe release of fellow UQ alum and International Criminal Court lawyer Melinda Taylor, who was held hostage by a militia in Libya after being accused of spying.

“I was heavily involved over an extended period in helping to free an Australian taken hostage by a militia in Libya.

“This was not easy – but, happily, successful in the end,” he said.

Mr Ritchie said he faced the biggest challenges of his career during the fight against terrorism in South-East Asia.

It was during this tumultuous period in the Asia-Pacific that he was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and in 2002 received his first head-of-mission appointment as Ambassador in Jakarta.

He arrived in Indonesia as Ambassador-designate two days after the Bali bombings in which 88 Australians lost their lives, and was also there for the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing and the 2005 Bali bombings.

In September 2004, he was at his desk when a massive car bomb exploded outside the Australian Embassy, just 30-metres from his window, killing numerous civilians and injuring many others.

He described this period as the most difficult of his career.

“Responding to the series of terrorist attacks – twice in Bali, at the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta and the Embassy bombing – that took place during my time in Indonesia was the biggest challenge by far. 

“How can anyone forget the tragic suffering of all of those caught up in all of these crimes, especially those who lost their lives, their families, and those who were injured? 

“Those were awful times,” said Mr Ritchie.

Then-Prime Minister John Howard expressed great admiration for Mr Ritchie’s “remarkable courage and leadership” on the day of the 2004 embassy bombing.

Mr Ritchie was later awarded a Group Bravery Citation and was named an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his work fighting terrorism in South-East Asia.

Mr Ritchie was also Ambassador to Indonesia when the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami occurred, which claimed at least 168,000 lives.

In 2013, Mr Ritchie returned to Germany as Ambassador and, upon retiring in July 2016, the German President awarded him the Grosses Bundesverdienstkreuz (Grand Cross of the Federal Order of Merit) for services to bilateral relations between Germany and Australia.

Mr Ritchie said that in light of recent events, diplomacy has never been more important and the evolution of the modern world order offers both opportunities and threats.

“This is exciting for foreign policy professionals and their countries,” he said.  

“It requires some foresight – although most of this could not have been predicted in 1975 – and very great flexibility.  It also throws up tremendous opportunities for countries like Australia.

“However, it is also incredibly concerning and deeply unsettling. At a time like now when we have to face so many problems and have to deal with the foundations of the world we knew changing so rapidly and unpredictably, there is an awful lot to lie awake worrying about at night.”

Despite his achievements, Mr Ritchie said diplomacy wasn’t initially a career he’d considered.

“To be honest with you, the idea of joining the Foreign Service had never really crossed my mind until, towards the end of my time at The University of Queensland, when I saw an ad in the papers and thought I might just give it a go.

“Even after what was – and still is – a gruelling selection process, I only considered myself to have a slight chance of actually being employed.”

He suggests that anyone passionate about working as a diplomat should work to build their knowledge and experience, but also just take the chance and put themself out there.

“The very first step people interested in a career in Foreign Affairs and Trade should take is to apply.  This sounds trite, but we were always on the lookout for good people, with potential,” he said.

“There are usually a small number of positions and a huge number of people chasing them, so good academic qualifications and a demonstrated interest and/or involvement in foreign relations are basic requirements.”

Mr Ritchie says he thoroughly enjoyed his time at UQ and continues to be strongly involved with the University.

“I made a lot of really good friends and greatly enjoyed the atmosphere and even the study,” he said.

“I have come to value UQ even more through my dealings with it over many years during my career.  It has always been a pleasure and I am very proud indeed of having gone to such a terrific university.”

In December 2016, Mr Ritchie was awarded an honorary doctorate at UQ and spoke to a graduating class of students from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Of course, one of the greatest highlights of my career has been receiving an honorary Doctor of Letters award from The University of Queensland.  That, I’d have to say, was one of the greatest thrills of my life so far.”

Mr Ritchie said he would encourage more people to study a language and thereby expand their worldview.

“Being able to speak a foreign language, even if not fluently, is an absolutely essential part of understanding the world and resisting the temptation to retreat into insularity, isolation and ignorance.”

“When I started studying the Arts at UQ, it was a requirement for entry that you had studied a foreign language up to Year 12 - no language, no entry.  I deeply regret the loss of that requirement.

“People in other countries put us to shame on this front.  Let’s start a movement aimed at reinstating the language requirement.”