Foreign diplomatic service a deadly serious business
The Mexican Ambassador to Venezuala was recently kidnapped. A ransom demand ensued and after five or six hours he was released.
The incident happened right outside his house in what was thought to be a safer part of town. The attack was highly co-ordinated with three teams of assailants using sophisticated and powerful weaponry.
While no-one was hurt, the episode was traumatic and by no means a one-off incident. It has left the diplomatic community in this city thinking intensely about how to deal with this ever-present danger in as professional a way as possible.
In my role I work closely with our diplomats, aid workers, Austrade officials and other Australian public servants serving abroad, mostly in developing countries. In some places we travel in bulletproof vehicles. Often our people are living behind large fences with security. And they operate in accordance with endless safety protocols tailored to the specific place and environment.
All of this is about trying to make an inherently dangerous situation just a little safer. But while risks can be minimised they cannot be eliminated.
Last year, an Australian diplomat in another South American capital was “express kidnapped” in a taxi at knifepoint. He was told to take out all his money and valuables and hand them over. He gave them everything he had. They tried to empty his ATM cards over the phone, but fortunately were not successful. Several hours later, at the end of this ordeal, he was left on the side of the road with nothing.
When I spoke to him about it, I felt a sense of dread in the pit of my stomach imagining how I would respond to the terror and the unknown of this situation. Yet he seemed remarkably calm and matter of fact about the whole experience.
In Port Moresby last March, an AusAID official was carjacked, again at gunpoint, on her way back to her compound. Her car was taken. She was not physically harmed but very shaken. Attacks on women in PNG, and for that matter anywhere, can end in a terrible place.
In both cases, our officials were operating cautiously and carefully – but when all is said and done this is dangerous work.
Australia is a global middle power. We have interests all over the world. There are Australians living in every corner of the planet. We do business in places you wouldn’t imagine. We have troops doing their part for global security in hazardous environments. As a developed country, we are surrounded by more developing countries than any other. We are doing development assistance work in every one of them.
These interests are served by our diplomatic corps. This development assistance work is performed by our AusAID officials. All of them are dedicated and resourceful. They are also brave.
The danger encountered by our foreign service is rarely acknowledged but it is very real. I am constantly amazed at how the public servants who do this work take on this danger steadfastly and with little fuss. They are deserving of our pride.
At the R G Casey Building in Canberra, the home of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, there is a memorial to commemorate those diplomats who have lost their lives in the service of their country. There is also a plaque to commemorate the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004.
Those brave people have been honoured in these ways. Yet the truth is that, largely, this honour is quietly observed by their foreign service colleagues who work in the R G Casey Building and other parts of Canberra, as well as by those who work abroad. They honour their fallen colleagues knowing the risks and dangers of their work, the strength it takes to deal with it, and the sacrifice these dead have made.
Many of our foreign service operate on the front line. They were in Japan at the outbreak of World War Two. They were in Vietnam and they are in Afghanistan. They are the first to visit a danger zone, be it that way because of war or natural disaster. And they are the last to leave.
Our country is blessed with fine Armed Forces that have a proud history. The noble work and sacrifice of our military is observed and honoured in a highly appropriate way.
Our foreign service may not wear a uniform or carry arms but they too put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf. Their work and the sacrifice of the foreign service dead is as great and worthy as any made in the name of Australia. And it is important and proper that all Australians know it.
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