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Honorary Consuls – a booming trade

Published on 30 September 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

The Economist of 31 August 2013 carried a rare short report on the institution of the honorary consul. It read:

‘Honorary consuls –  a booming trade’, 

(with the subheading, ‘Foreign ministries employ ever more amateurs to do their bidding abroad‘)

“In a way an honorary consul is more difficult to get rid of than a career man,” wrote Graham Greene in his novel “The Honorary Consul”, charting the misadventures of an alcoholic Englishman of minor diplomatic rank in Argentina.

Honorary consuls are recognised in international law and theoretically enjoy the same privileges as career diplomats. Often they are locals appointed in cities too insignificant for professional consulates. Most work without pay. Their numbers have been growing steadily in recent years, to more than 20,000 worldwide. Many represent small or fast-growing countries. Estonia has 165, up from 100 only a few years ago. Iceland has 250. Among large countries, Australia, Canada and Russia are enthusiastic employers of honorary consuls.

World travel is one reason for their growing ubiquity. Tourists range ever farther afield. When they fall ill or have run-ins with the law, embassies in national capitals are often too far away to provide assistance. New trade routes also generate demand for honorary consuls. Small African countries now do business with firms in provincial Chinese and Indian cities. Who can afford punchy representation everywhere? Well-connected locals offering their services for the honour of flying the flag are more than welcome. Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the billionaire founder of easyJet, an airline, represents his native Cyprus in Monaco, where he now lives.

Few have done better by their masters than Joanne Herring, former honorary consul for Pakistan in Texas. She helped to channel weapons to Pakistani rebels in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. Now 84, she says she “never dreamed of being the honorary consul of anywhere”. Other honorary consuls have done less well. Last year a Florida socialite, Jill Kelley, was dismissed as South Korea’s woman in Tampa after just four months. A Korean official claimed she had used her title for personal gain. She was involved in a scandal that led to the resignation of David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, with which South Korea co-operates closely.

That may explain why some countries prefer to stick with the professionals. “While there are benefits for other countries, having someone else represent us would be kind of goofy,” says David Merkel, a former American diplomat. “We have the capacity and the interest to have a large diplomatic corps.”

During all my work on diplomacy practices, I had simply not noticed that the US does not appoint honorary consuls. As a new book of mine, The Contemporary Embassy: Paths to Diplomatic Excellence, was at the final stage of proof-reading and finalization of the index, I scrambled to add check on this, and managed to add a sentence to the section on ‘Honorary Consuls’ in the book. A quick email to a retired US ambassador brought the information that US used to appoint such ‘amateur’ diplomats, but ended the practice many years back.

That seems a pity, because besides providing the stuff of novels and movies, honorary consuls are in effect a form of ‘citizen diplomacy’, in that they bring in people from different walks of life into working to improve different sets of bilateral relationships. The fact that they do this without any real payment makes the process even more impressive. As The Economist tells us, there are some 20,000 such appointees around the world. Consider also: China, Cuba and North Korea are among the few nations that neither appoint, nor receive honorary consuls – the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations gives countries such an option. The US, while not appointing any of its own, receives what is perhaps the largest number of such appointees from foreign countries, some 1200 at last count, and they are located in all manner of cities and states in that continental landmass country.

My conclusion: ‘HonCons’ are a remarkably effective, almost zero-cost option for representation in cities and regions where countries may not opt to establish fulltime consulates of their own. Many countries that under-use this option, especially developing countries, can gain much from this option, especially at a time when foreign ministry budgets are shrinking the world over. It is a diplomacy trend that has a sound future.


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