Richard Edmund Butler, of Australia, was born in 1926 in Black Rock, Melbourne. During the Second World War he enlisted in the Australian army, aged eighteen. Afterwards, he returned to work at the Australian Post-Master General’s department, where he had first been employed as a telegram delivery boy. Over the next two decades he progressed to become Assistant Deputy Director-General. In this senior position Butler was involved in planning domestic and international telecommunications, and was a policy adviser for the development of Australian broadcasting and television services. He also helped establish INTELSAT and assisted in negotiating international agreements on submarine cables.
Butler participated in major ITU conferences as deputy leader of Australian delegations. In 1968, he was appointed by the ITU Administrative Council to be Deputy Secretary-General ad interim, and was elected to the post by the Plenipotentiary Conference in Malaga-Torremolinos in 1973. He encouraged cooperation between ITU Member States and promoted modern management methods for exchanging information among administrations.
In 1982, the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Nairobi elected Butler as Secretary-General. It was a pivotal moment for a campaign dear to his heart: promoting telecommunications as a powerful tool in socio-economic development. The conference set up an Independent International Commission for World-Wide Telecommunications Development chaired by Sir Donald Maitland. In 1985, the Commission issued a highly influential report, The Missing Link. It found that two-thirds of the world’s population had no access to telephone services, and set a goal to bring all of humankind within easy reach of telecommunications and its benefits by the early part of the 21st century. The Plenipotentiary Conference in Nice in 1989 followed up by creating within ITU a Telecommunication Development Bureau.
Another major milestone during Butler’s leadership was the signing in 1988 of the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), which facilitated connectivity of, and innovation in, international telecommunication services.
Butler remained involved in telecommunications in his later years, and was an eminent adviser to governments, businesses and international agencies. He died in Melbourne at the age of eighty-six. An obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald described Butler as
a champion for developing nations who
believed radio and telephones were as essential to Third World countries as food, medicine and clean water….