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A diplomatic mission is a group of people from one state or an international inter-governmental organization (such as the United Nations) present in another state to represent the sending state/organization in the receiving state. In practice, a diplomatic mission usually denotes the permanent mission, namely the office of a country’s diplomatic representatives in the capital city of another country.
A permanent diplomatic mission is usually known as an embassy, and the person in charge of the mission is known as an ambassador. Missions between Commonwealth countries are known as High Commissions and their heads are High Commissioners.
All missions to the United Nations are known simply as Permanent Missions, and the head of such a mission is typically both a Permanent Representative and an ambassador. Some countries have more particular naming for their missions and staff: a Vatican mission is headed by a Nuncio and consequently known as an Apostolic Nunciature, while Libya’s missions were for a long time known as People’s Bureaus and the head of the mission was a Secretary. (Libya has since switched back to standard nomenclature.)
In the past a diplomatic mission headed by a lower ranking official (an envoy or minister resident) was known as a legation. Since the ranks of envoy and minister resident are effectively obsolete, the designation of legation is no longer used today. (See diplomatic rank.)
In cases of dispute, it is common for a country to recall its head of mission as a sign of its displeasure. This is less drastic than cutting diplomatic relations completely, and the mission will still continue operating more or less normally, but it will now be headed by a chargé d’affaires who may have limited powers. Note that for the period of succession between two heads of missions, a chargé d’affaires ad interim may be appointed as caretaker; this does not imply any hostility to the host country.
A Consulate is similar to (but not the same as) a diplomatic office, but with focus on dealing with individual persons and businesses, as defined by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. A Consulate or Consulate-General is generally a representative of the Embassy in locales outside of the capital city. For instance, The British Embassy to the United States is in Washington, D.C., and there are British Consulates in Los Angeles, New York City, Houston, and so on.
The term “embassy” is often used to refer to the building or compound housing an ambassador’s offices and staff. Technically, “embassy” refers to the diplomatic delegation itself, while the office building in which they work is known as a chancery, but this distinction is rarely used in practice. Ambassadors reside in ambassadorial residences, which enjoy the same rights as missions.
Under international law, diplomatic missions enjoy an extraterritorial status and thus, although remaining part of the host country’s territory, they are exempt from local law and in almost all respects treated as being part of the territory of the home country. They are also only required to pay taxes equal to their respective countries’ guidelines.
As the host country may not enter the representing country’s embassy without permission, embassies are sometimes used by refugees escaping from either the host country or a third country. For example, North Korean nationals, who would be arrested and deported from China upon discovery, have sought sanctuary at various third-country embassies in China. Once inside the embassy, diplomatic channels can be used to solve the issue and send the refugees to another country. Notable violations of embassy extraterritoriality include the Iran hostage crisis (1979–1981), the Japanese embassy hostage crisis (1996) in Lima, Peru, 2006 embassy burnings in Iran, Lebanon and Syria of Danish, Norwegian and Chilean embassies.
The role of such a mission is to protect in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law; negotiating with the Government of the receiving State as directed by the sending State; ascertaining by lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State; promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.
Between members of the Commonwealth of Nations there are no embassies, but High Commissions, as Commonwealth nations share a special diplomatic relationship. It is generally expected that an embassy of a Commonwealth country in a non-Commonwealth country will do its best to provide diplomatic services to citizens from other Commonwealth countries if the citizen’s country does not have an embassy in that country. Canadian and Australian nationals enjoy even greater cooperation between their respective consular services, as outlined in Canada/Australian Consular Services Sharing Agreement. The same kind of procedure is also followed multilaterally by the member states of the European Union (EU). European citizens in need of consular help in a country without diplomatic or consular representation of their own country may turn to any consular or diplomatic mission of another EU member state.
The rights and immunities (such as diplomatic immunity) of diplomatic missions are codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Nations that are not recognized have legations overseas but these are not recognized as having official diplomatic status as defined by the Vienna Convention. These de facto embassies are usually referred to as Representative Offices. Some examples of these types of missions: the Representative Office of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in Washington, D.C.; Somaliland’s representatives in London, Addis Ababa, Rome, and Washington, D.C.; the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh has a representative office in Washington, D.C.; the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Washington, D.C. (representing the Republic of China); and the American Institute in Taiwan (representing the United States in the Republic of China). Under United States law, such offices are regarded by the State Department officially as “information centers” and the persons working in them do not have diplomatic visas, nor are credentials from their chiefs of mission accepted.
Countries that are not sovereign states may set up offices abroad, as in the case of Hong Kong, which government has set up Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices in various locations. Such offices assume some of the non-diplomatic functions of diplomatic posts, such as promoting trade interests and providing assistance to its citizens and residents. They are nevertheless not diplomatic missions, their personnels are not diplomats and do not have diplomatic visas.
Some cities may host more than one mission from the same country. An example is Rome, where many states maintain missions to Italy, another to the Holy See and even another to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It is not customary for these missions to share premises nor diplomatic personnel. Presently only the Iraqi missions to Italy and the Holy See share premises; however, two ambassadors are appointed, one to each country. Geneva, a Swiss city hosting many international organizations, also has many missions.
The structure of a diplomatic mission varies according to its size and purpose. The executive office usually consists of a Head of Mission, Deputy Chief of Mission, and is supported by sections including but not limited to:
Consular sections are responsible for assisting and protecting overseas citizens in distress, processing visa applications, and issuing and renewing passports.
Political/Economic sections provide reporting and analysis on political and economic issues, usually by producing cables for their home government.
Public Affairs Section
Public Affairs sections serve as both press offices (handling official spokesman duties and liaising with local press) and cultural offices (supporting home government outreach programs/performances, managing cultural and academic exchange programs such as the Fulbright Program).
Management/Administrative sections handle the day to day operations of the mission with responsibilities over maintenance, payroll, human resources, etc.
Foreign Aid Offices
Foreign aid offices such as USAID (at American posts) and DFID (at British posts) oversee the disbursement and implementation of foreign assistance.
Office of Defense Attachée
Defense Attaché’s offices handle the official military-to-military contact for governments, support home government military visits, and produce reporting on military and battlefield intelligence.
Other attachée offices usually exist in larger missions handling issues such as agriculture, commerce, science, military sales and health.
The system of diplomatic rank has over time been formalised on an international basis.
Until the early 19th century, each European nation had its own system of diplomatic rank. The relative ranks of diplomats from different nations had been a source of considerable dispute, made more so by the insistence of major nations to have their diplomats ranked higher than those of minor nations, to be reflected in such things as table seatings.
In an attempt to resolve the problem, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 formally established an international system of diplomatic ranks. The four ranks within the system were:
- Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, or simply Ambassador, who is a representative of the head of state. Equivalent, and in some traditions primus inter pares, is the Papal nuncio. Amongst Commonwealth countries, the equivalent title High Commissioner (who represents the government rather than the head of state) is normally used instead.
A diplomatic mission headed by an ambassador would be known as an Embassy; one headed by a High Commissioner is called a High Commission. Ambassadors and high commissioners are entitled to use the title “His/Her Excellency” from the government and the people of the country they are appointed to.
- Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. Usually just referred to as a Minister, an envoy is a diplomatic representative with plenipotentiary powers (i.e. full authority to represent the head of state), but ranking below an Ambassador. Where Embassies are headed by Ambassadors, Legations are headed by Ministers.
- Minister Resident or Resident Minister, or simply Minister, is the, now extremely rare, lowest rank of full diplomatic mission chief, only above Chargé d’affaires (who is considered an extraordinary substitute).
- Note that both the Minister Plenipotentiary and the Minister Resident are diplomatic ministers, which are not the same thing as government ministers or religious ministers. A diplomatic mission headed by either type of Minister would be called a Legation. As they formally represent the head of state, they are entitled to use the title “His/Her Excellency”, which originally was reserved for Ambassadors.
- Chargé d’affaires, or simply Chargé. As the French title suggests, a chargé d’affaires would be in charge of an embassy’s or a legation’s affairs in the (usually temporary) absence of a more senior diplomat. A Chargé d’affaires ad interim or simply “a.i.” is generally serving as head of mission during the temporary absence of the head of mission, while the Chargé d’affaires e.p. or en pied maintains the same functions and duties as an ambassador, and is accredited not to the head of state but to the minister of foreign relations of the receiving state.
As it turned out, this system of diplomatic rank did nothing to solve the problem of the nations’ precedence. The appropriate diplomatic ranks used would be determined by the precedence among the nations; thus the exchanges of ambassadors (the highest diplomatic rank) would be reserved among major nations, or close allies and related monarchies. In contrast, a major nation would probably send just an envoy to a minor nation, who in return would send an envoy to the major nation. As a result, the United States did not use the rank of ambassador until their emergence as a major world power at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, until the mid-20th century, the majority of diplomats in the world were of the rank of minister plenipotentiary.
In diplomatic parlance, all the diplomats that are assigned to a nation are known collectively as the diplomatic corps; one of these diplomats is recognized as the primus inter pares—in practice rather a protocolar honor—who acts as the spokesperson for all, known as the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps or as Marshal of Diplomacy (generally based on the date of arrival in country or presentation of credentials to the head of state, although in some Catholic nations it is held automatically by the Papal Nuncio).
After World War II, it was no longer considered acceptable to treat some nations as inferior to others given the United Nations doctrine of equality of sovereign states; therefore most legations were upgraded to embassies, and the use of the rank of Minister for diplomatic missions’ highest-ranking officials gradually ceased. The last U.S. Legation, in Sofia, Bulgaria, was upgraded to an Embassy on November 28, 1966. Where those ranks still exist, their incumbents usually act as embassy section chiefs or Deputy Chief of Mission (deputy to the Ambassador).
The distinction between managers and officers is not necessarily as apparent. Senior officers (such as first and second secretaries) often manage junior diplomats and locally-hired staff.
In modern diplomatic practice there are a number of diplomatic ranks below Ambassador. Since most missions are now headed by an Ambassador, these ranks now rarely indicate a mission’s (or its host nation’s) relative importance, but rather reflect the diplomat’s individual seniority within their own nation’s diplomatic career path and in the diplomatic corps in the host nation:
- Ambassador (or High-Commissioner in Commonwealth missions)
- First Secretary
- Second Secretary
- Third Secretary
- Assistant Attaché
- Chargé d’affaires and Chargé d’affaires, ad interim (or simply i.) is a separate title used when an Ambassador (or other head of mission) is not present, has not been appointed, or is otherwise not able to discharge duties in a specific location. Generally, the ad interim (temporary) “chargé” (as they are often referred to) is another staff member (usually the second-most senior officer) accredited in the host country for the head of mission’s temporary absences. In such cases, the diplomatic mission advises the local government (usually the foreign ministry) by means of a diplomatic note that a specific individual has been appointed chargé for a specific or indefinite period of time. In contrast to an Ambassador, the specific agreement of the host government is not required.
In certain cases, a Chargé d’affaires may be appointed for long periods, when a mission is headed by a non-resident Ambassador, when countries have established diplomatic relations but not exchanged Ambassadors, or when they have recalled their Ambassadors for a period of time (to express displeasure or serious disagreement) but not yet taken the extremely serious step of breaking diplomatic relations. It is not unheard of for Chargé d’affaires to remain in place for an indefinite period. Since a Chargé d’affaires does not need to present letters of credence to the host head of state, appointing a chargé may avoid a politically sensitive meeting or implying some form of approval or recognition of that head of state or government. Equally, the receiving country may express displeasure by declining to receive an Ambassador, but maintain diplomatic relations by accepting a Chargé.
The term Attaché is used for any diplomatic agent who does not fit in the standard diplomatic ranks, often because they are not (or were not traditionally) members of the sending country’s diplomatic service or foreign ministry, and were therefore only “attached” to the diplomatic mission. The most frequent use is for military attachés, but the diplomatic title may be used for any specific individual or position as required. Since administrative and technical staff benefit from only limited diplomatic immunity, some countries may routinely appoint support staff as attachés. Attaché does not, therefore, connote any rank or position. Note that many traditional functionary roles, such as Press Attaché or Cultural Attaché, are not formal titles in diplomatic practice, although they may be used as a matter of custom.
Most countries worldwide have some form of internal rank, roughly parallel to the diplomatic ranks, which are used in their foreign service or civil service in general. The correspondence is not exact, however, for various reasons, including the fact that according to diplomatic usage, all Ambassadors are of equal rank, but clearly Ambassadors of more senior rank are sent to more important postings. Some countries may make specific links or comparisons to military ranks.
Furthermore, outside this traditional pattern of bilateral diplomacy, as a rule on a permanent residency basis (though sometimes doubling elsewhere), certain ranks and positions were created specifically for multilateral diplomacy:
- A permanent representative is the equivalent of an ambassador, normally of that rank, but accredited to an international body (mainly by member—and possibly observer states), not to a head of state.
- A resident representative (or sometimes simply representative) is the equivalent — in rank and privileges — of an ambassador, but accredited by an international organization (generally a United Nations agency, or a Bretton Woods institution) to a country’s government. The resident representative typically heads the country office of that international organization within that country.
- A special ambassador is a government’s specialist diplomat in a particular field, not posted in residence, but often traveling around the globe.
- The S. Trade Representative is a diplomat of cabinet rank, in charge of U.S. delegations in multilateral trade negotiations (since 1962).
- The UN Secretary General personally mandates Special Envoys for a particular field, e.g. Africa’s long-term AIDS problem, climate change negotiations, or ad hoc as for a (civil) war zone; states, especially (regional) superpowers, may do the same, e.g.:
- To help with the Northern Ireland peace process, the United States has appointed a Special Envoy to Northern Ireland with the diplomatic rank of Ambassador. As of 2006, the position was occupied by Mitchell Reiss.
- During the 2006 democracy movement in Nepal, India sent on April 18 Karan Singh, who is related to royalty in both predominantly Hindu countries, as Special Envoy to neighbouring Nepal where increasingly violent opposition started its successful challenge of the king’s autocratic rule.
- In 2005, Belgium created a former cabinet member, Pierre Chevalier Special Envoy of the OSCE presidency—in fact ahead of its 2006 turn as rotatory Chairman-in-Office of the organisation; the post was never formally created—to mediate in the Gazprom natural gas-pipeline crisis involving Russia, Ukraine and the EU.
- The EU appoints various Special Representatives (some regional, some thematic); e.g. in 2005—as a response to events in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan—the Council of the EU appointed Jan Kubis as its “Special Representative for Central Asia”.
- A case sui generis is the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Formally the consular career (ranking in descending order: Consul-General, Consul, Vice-Consul, Consular Agent; equivalents without diplomatic immunity include Honorary Consul-General, Honorary Consul, and Honorary Vice-Consul) forms a separate hierarchy. Many countries do not internally have a separate consular path or stream, and the meaning of “consular” responsibilities and functions will differ from country to country. Other titles, including “Vice Consul-General”, have existed in the past. Consular titles may be used concurrently with diplomatic titles if the individual is assigned to an embassy. Diplomatic immunity is more limited for consular officials without other diplomatic accreditation, and broadly limited to immunity with respect to their official duties.
At a separate consular post, the official will have only a consular title. Officials at consular posts may therefore have consular titles, but not be involved in traditional consular activities, and actually be responsible for trade, cultural, or other matters.
Consular officers, being nominally more distant from the politically sensitive aspects of diplomacy, can more easily render a wide range of services to private citizens, enterprises, et cetera. They may be more numerous since diplomatic missions are posted only in a nation’s capital, while consular officials are stationed in various other cities as well. However, it is not uncommon 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. Some countries routinely provide their Embassy officials with consular commissions, including those without formal consular responsibilities, since a consular commission allows the individual to legalize documents, sign certain documents, and undertake certain other necessary functions.
Depending on the practice of the individual country, “consular services” may be limited to services provided for citizens or residents of the sending country, or extended to include, for example, visa services for nationals of the host country.
What’s the difference between an embassy and a consulate?
A consulate is like a junior embassy. It’s generally located in a busy tourist city, and takes care of minor diplomatic tasks such as issuing visas. The word consulate literally means office of the consul, who is a diplomat appointed to foster trade and take care of expatriates. You can read some pointed essays about the role of the modern day consulate at the American Foreign Service site.
Embassies are much bigger deals. The word embassy comes from the French ambassade, or office of the ambassador. Ambassadors are high-ranking diplomatic representatives who serve as spokespersons for their national governments. If one country recognizes the sovereignty of another, they generally establish an embassy there. Embassies take care of the same administrative duties as consulates, but they also represent their governments abroad.
This can be tricky business. For instance, the United States doesn’t maintain an embassy in Taiwan (in order to maintain diplomatic relations with China), but it does operates a consulate there to take care of its overseas citizens. For an interesting online look at another prickly diplomatic relation, check out the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia, which features a reaction statement to the recent incarceration of Malaysia’s former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
You may recall the famous photograph from 1975 of American citizens ostensibly fleeing the American embassy in Saigon. The building was in fact an apartment complex across the street, but the message was clear: once the embassy leaves, the country symbolically leaves.