The political title Consul is used for the official representatives of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the peoples of the two countries. A consul is distinguished from an ambassador, the latter being a representative from one head of state to another. There can be only one ambassador from one country to another, representing the first country's head of state to that of the second, and his or her duties revolve around diplomatic relations between the two countries; however, there may be several consuls, one in each of several main cities, providing assistance with bureaucratic issues to both the citizens of the consul's own country travelling or living abroad and to the citizens of the country the consul resides in who wish to travel to or trade with the consul's country.
Antecedent: the Classical Greek Proxenos
In Classical Greece, some of the functions of the modern Consul were fulfilled by a Proxenos. Unlike the modern position, this was a citizen of the host polity (in Greece, a city state). The Proxenos was usually a rich merchant who had socio-economic ties with another city and who helped its citizens when they were in trouble in his own city. The position of Proxenos was often hereditary in a particular family. Modern Honorary Consuls fulfil a function that is to a degree similar to that of the Ancient Greek institution.
Historical development of the terms
Consuls were the highest magistrates of the Roman Republic. The term was revived by the city-state of Genoa which, unlike Rome, bestowed it on various state officials, not necessarily restricted to the highest. Among these were Genoese officials stationed in various Mediterranean ports, whose role included duties similar to those of the modern consul, i.e. helping Genoese merchants and sailors in difficulties with the local authorities.
The Consolat de mar was an institution established under the reign of Peter IV of Aragon in the fourteenth century, and which spread to 47 locations throughout the Mediterranean. It was primarily a judicial body, administering maritime and commercial law as Lex Mercatoria. Although the Consolat de mar was established by the Corts General (parliament) of the Crown of Aragon, the consuls were independent from the King. This distinction between consular and diplomatic functions remains (at least formally) to this day. Modern consuls retain limited judicial powers to settle disputes on ships from their country (notably regarding the payment of wages to sailors).
The Consulado de mercaderes was set up in 1543 in Seville as a merchant guild to control trade with Latin America. As such, it had branches in the principal cities of the Spanish colonies.
The connection of "consul" with trade and commercial law is retained in French. In francophone countries, a juge consulaire (consular judge) is a non-professional judge elected by the chamber of commerce to settle commercial disputes in the first instance (in France, sitting in panels of three; in Belgium, in conjunction with a professional magistrate).
Consulates and embassies
Consulate-General of Indonesia in Houston is Indonesia's representation in Houston, Texas, United States Consulate of Kazakhstan in Omsk, Russia Consulate of Belgium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Consulate of Portugal in Mindelo, Cape Verde. The office of a Consul is termed a Consulate, and is usually subordinate to the state's main representation in that foreign country, usually an Embassy, or High Commission between Commonwealth countries, in the capital city of the host state. Like the term embassy, the word consulate may refer not only to the office of consul, but also to the building occupied by the consul and his or her staff. In capital cities, the consulate may share the premises with the embassy itself.
A consul of higher rank is termed a consul-general, and his or her office a consulate-general. He or she typically has one or several Deputy Consuls-General, Consuls, Vice-Consuls and Consular Agents working under the consul-general. Consulates-general need not have their offices in the capital city, but rather could have then in the most important/appropriate cities in terms of bilateral relations (commerce, travel, etc.). In the United States, for example, most countries have a consulate-general in New York City (the home of the United Nations), and some have consulates-general in several major cities (e.g., Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Houston, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans). The same is the case for other large countries like Germany - where many consulates-general are located in cities such as Bonn, Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Munich, the Russian Federation - where many consulates-general are located in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, etc., Canada - where many consulates-general are located in Toronto and Vancouver, Brazil - where many consulates-general are located in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and Australia - where many consulates-general are located in Sydney and Melbourne.
Authority and activities
Consuls of various ranks may have specific legal authority for certain activities, such as notarizing documents. As such, diplomatic personnel with other responsibilities may receive consular letters patent (commissions). Aside from those outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, there are few formal requirements outlining what a consular official must do. For example, for some countries, consular officials may be responsible for the issuance of visas; other countries may limit "consular services" to providing assistance to compatriots, legalization of documents, etc. Nonetheless, consulates proper will be headed by consuls of various ranks, even if such officials have little or no connection with the more limited sense of consular service.
Activities of a consulate include protecting the interests of their citizens temporarily or permanently resident in the host country, issuing passports; issuing visas to foreigners and public diplomacy. However, the principal role of a consulate lies traditionally in promoting trade assisting companies to invest and to import and export goods and services both inwardly to their home country and outward to their host country. And although it is never admitted publicly, consulates, like embassies, may also gather intelligence information from the assigned country.
In many cases, such as the United States, consulates are established for specific consular districts of another nation-state. For instance, the consular representation in India and Bhutan is divided into 5 regions, one of which, the New Delhi Consular District (based at the U.S. consulate in New Delhi), covers the Indian states of Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Consular districts are demarcated to serve only citizens resident within the district with non-immigrant visas.
Role in diplomatic missions
Contrary to popular belief, although many of the staff of consulates may be career diplomats, they do not generally have diplomatic immunity (unless they are also accredited as such). Immunities and privileges for consuls and accredited staff of consulates (consular immunity) are generally limited to actions undertaken in their official capacity and, with respect to the consulate itself, to those required for official duties. In practice, the extension and application of consular privileges and immunities can be subject to wide discrepancies from country to country.
Consulates are more numerous than diplomatic missions (e.g., embassies), since the latter are posted only in a foreign nation's capital (exceptionally even outside the country, in case of a multiple mandate; e.g., a minor power may well accredit a single Ambassador with several neighbouring states of modest relative importance that are not considered important allies), while consular ones are also posted in various cities throughout the country, especially centres of economic activity, or wherever there is a significant population of its citizens (expatriates) in residence.
Consulates are subordinate posts of their home country's diplomatic mission (typically an embassy, in the capital city of the host country). Diplomatic missions are established in international law under the Vienna Conventions, while consulates-general and consulates are established in international law under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Formally, at least within the US system, the consular career (ranking in descending order: Consul-General, Consul, Vice-Consul, Honorary Consul) forms a different hierarchy from the diplomats in the strict sense. However, it is common for individuals to be transferred from one hierarchy to the other, and for consular officials to serve in a capital carrying out strictly consular duties within the consular section of a diplomatic post; e.g., within an embassy.
Between Commonwealth countries, both diplomatic and consular activities may be undertaken by a High Commission in the capital, although larger Commonwealth nations generally also have consulates and consulates-general in major cities. For example, Toronto in Canada, Sydney in Australia and Auckland, New Zealand, are of greater economic importance than their respective national capitals, hence the need for consulates there.
In British colonies, most notably Hong Kong before the transfer of its sovereignty to the People's Republic of China in 1997, senior envoys from Commonwealth states in these missions are usually known as Commissioners. (All previous Commissioners in Hong Kong are now styled Consuls-General.)
A consul general is a consular officer who heads a consulate general and is a consul of the highest rank serving at a particular location. A consul general may also be responsible for consular districts which contain other, subordinate consular offices within a country. The consul general serves as a representative who speaks on behalf of his or her state in the country to which he or she is located, although ultimate jurisdiction over the right to speak on behalf of a home country within another country ultimately belong to the single ambassador. It is abbreviated "CG" and the plural form is consuls general. In most embassies, the consular section is headed by a consul general who is also a member of the ambassador's country team.
Home of Poland's honorary consul in Jerusalem Some consuls are not career officials of the represented state at all; some are locally-engaged staff with the nationality of the sending country, and in smaller cities, or in cities that are very distant from full-time diplomatic missions, a foreign government which feels that some form of representation is nevertheless desirable may appoint a person who has not hitherto been part of their diplomatic service to fulfill this role. Such a consul may well combine the job with his or her own (often commercial) private activities, and in some instances may not even be a citizen of the sending country. Such consular appointments are usually given the title of honorary consul. Graham Greene used this position as the title of his 1973 novel The Honorary Consul.
Notwithstanding their other roles, Honorary Consular Officers (in the widest use of the term) also have responsibility for the welfare of citizens of the appointing country within their bailiwick. Thus, particularly within a port town, an Honorary Consul may be called out (at any time, day or night) to attend to the well-being of a citizen of the appointing country who has been arrested. Their role in this situation is to ensure that the arrested persons are treated in a like manner as would be the citizen of the country in which this person was arrested, and understand their rights & obligations.
Historical role in L beck
In the social life of 19th century L beck as depicted in Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks - based on Mann's thorough personal knowledge of his own birth milieu - an appointment as the Consul of a foreign country was a source of considerable social prestige among the city's merchant elite. As depicted in the book, the position of a Consul for a particular country was in practice hereditary in a specific family, whose mansion bore the represented country's coat of arms, and with that country confirming the Consul's son or other heir in the position on the death of the previous Consul. As repeatedly referenced by Mann, Consul's wife was known as "Consulin" and continued to bear that title even on the death of her husband. Characters in the book are mentioned as Consuls for Denmark, The Netherlands and Portugal.
Colonial and similar roles
Concessions and extraterritoriality
History of European consuls in the Ottoman Empire
- Agent general
- Capitulation (treaty)
- Consular corps
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