Readers of The Telegraph will have no difficulty recalling the exotic and raffish figure of the Honorary Consul in Graham Greene’s eponymous novel, even though they might find it hard to reconcile that image with any of the nearly 50 persons of that appellation in Calcutta, whom they would identify more from the ‘CC’ on vehicle number plates and brass emblems outside offices than from any sense of adventure or misadventure. The same observers would, however, be legitimately puzzled as to the excessively large number of people in Calcutta bearing the designation of honorary consul on behalf of often obscure and insignificant foreign nations that have an exiguous number of nationals or tourists, and practically no trade, cultural or economic links, with West Bengal. These honorary consuls supplement the work of 12 career consuls in Calcutta.
Consular officials fall into two categories: career and honorary, and their role and character are formulated in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963. The convention draws a clear distinction between career and honorary consuls. The honorary consul is a time-honoured profession, having first been instituted at the behest of the mercantile trading community around the eighth century AD to facilitate trade and commercial links for the countries the consuls represented, and inevitably, of course, for themselves personally. The office of honorary consul is more ancient than that of the career consul, which made its appearance only around the 18th century.
In terms of protocol status, however, the honorary consul is at the bottom rung of the diplomatic and consular hierarchy; an honorary consul-general is higher than an honorary consul, but both are lower in status than a career consul. The term ‘honorary’ reflects its actual meaning: that the person is not in the employment of the appointing State and is therefore not a charge on that nation’s treasury. In only one sense is the honorary consul privileged in comparison to his or her career counterpart: he is allowed to carry out his purely personal and business activities while simultaneously discharging the official functions attached to the consular appointment.
When it comes to honorifics, the honorary consul is just plain Mr, Mrs or Ms as the case may be, and is not entitled to any appellation or distinction of rank. A career consul-general may be termed ‘Honourable’ if it is customary in local circumstances. ‘Excellency’ is a term promiscuously used out of ignorance or sycophancy, but it is to be restricted only, and strictly, to a person representing the head of a State.
Nations that are party to the Vienna Convention — and the treaty is almost universally accepted — have at times made certain declarations or reservations about certain of its provisions at the time of ratification or notification. In the main, these reservations have referred to honorary consuls who are the citizens of the sending country, for whom a few nations had sought some extra facilities. However, all countries have recognized the ‘optional’ nature of the office of honorary consul; that is to say, it is optional for the sending nation to appoint an honorary consul; it is optional for the receiving nation to receive or not to receive an honorary consul, which in technical diplomatic parlance is called the grant of an exequatur to the individual concerned; and it is optional for the person so appointed to accept or refuse the appointment. The honorary consul is not subject to being transferred to another post, and is not under the same administrative disciplines as a career official.
The practice of appointing honorary consuls is largely confined to small States that find the practice useful and economical since they have to cope with manpower and financial constraints, although in this age of globalization, they would like to have as wide a geographical representation as possible. Each country is free to decide whether it wishes to send or receive honorary consuls, and there are contrasting approaches in vogue. Large countries like the United States of America, the former Soviet Union and India have used the institution very sparingly, while China neither sends nor receives any honorary consuls. Hungary used honorary consuls extensively after World War I, but following the example of the Soviet Union after World War II, brought this practice to a stop, only to revive it after the end of the Cold War. So much so that in 2008, Hungary had 207 honorary consuls positioned in 92 countries. The US, because of its size and economic prosperity, is the biggest recipient of honorary consuls from other countries. It is estimated that there are roughly 2,000 honorary consuls around the world, which is a small number compared to the overall strength of the diplomatic or career consular corps. Customarily, the honorary consul will be a citizen of the receiving State, and sometimes of the sending State, but on rare occasions, the office is held by a third-country national.
Russia, after the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Thailand and the Philippines are now making more use of this institution of honorary consul. Thailand had nearly 100 honorary consuls in 2003, and the Philippines finds the need to service its large community in the US by means of this office. In its desire to build and manage a strong partnership with the US, Canada seeks to have a consular presence — whether career or honorary — in every state of the US, which has led to a sharp rise in the number of its honorary consuls. In an effort to make the position more appealing to otherwise busy potential candidates, Canada has sought to provide attractive honorariums and reimbursements for services, amounting sometimes to as much as $100,000 per annum. Some sending States nominate honorary consuls for a fixed tenure, others on an indefinite basis, but in both cases, the appointment is personal to the individual, not hereditary or transferable to another person.
In principle, the honorary consul should perform much the same function as any career consul, but the scope of authority given to the honorary consul is circumscribed by the fact that his or her authority is not exclusive, because diplomatic or career representatives, say from New Delhi in the case of Calcutta, can and do operate here concurrently and will outrank the honorary consul. Normally the honorary consul will not be entitled to any remuneration for services rendered other than reimbursement of costs incurred in the performance of official consular duties. Understandably, sending States try to appoint persons of sufficient means so that they can operate as far as possible from their own resources without reimbursements. The receiving State is required under the Vienna Convention to provide all the facilities needed to enable an honorary consul to discharge his/her duties, namely protection of consular premises, exemption from taxation of the premises in the event that the sending State is the owner or lessee of the property, and immunity for official documents and archives, provided these are kept distinct and separate from the papers of the personal business or profession of the honorary consul. The honorary consuls are also exempt from taxation on remunerations and reimbursements received from the sending State. Because the position of an honorary consul is not regarded as a full-time job, the incumbent is not entitled to the full facilities enjoyed by a career consul; for example, the family members of the honorary consul are given no recognition or benefits of any kind.
While globalization and the expansion of trade and commerce have led to an increase in the use of honorary consuls, especially by countries less well endowed in size, manpower or finance, there have been increasing instances of impropriety and of incumbents misusing their position for personal advantage. In some cases, consular nominations have been purchased by the highest bidder in an attempt to enhance their local social status or personal leverage. Such deplorable practices have caused many countries to review the functioning and personal qualifications of their honorary consuls. If any violation of the accepted norms of conduct comes to the attention of the receiving State, the honorary consul is given the ultimate disgrace of the summary withdrawal of the exequatur. This fate would have undoubtedly befallen the honorary consul in Greene’s novel, but for the fact that the sending State pre-emptively stripped him of his position.