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Even terror outfits like Lebanon’s Hezbollah may have profited from the protection that honorary consul titles provide Image: Ayal Margolinc/ JINIPIX/AP/picture alliance
Honorary consuls, a class of voluntary diplomat, are among the least-regulated actors in international diplomacy. A joint investigation by DW and partners reveals how it is abused by criminals and even terrorists.
Honorary consuls, or volunteer diplomats, operate in a legal grey zone, enjoying at least partial diplomatic immunity around the world while being subject to very little oversight. And such privilege is being abused to the point that it could threaten rule of law, a broad new investigation shows.
The Shadow Diplomats Investigation — which DW participated in along with other media organizations — reveals that the poorly monitored system of honorary consuls is being undermined by those who abuse the status to enrich themselves, evade law enforcement or advance their political agenda.
DW’s Turkish desk has created its own database of honorary consuls living in Turkey. The 328-strong list included 22 politicians — 14 of whom hail from President Erdogan’s party. At least 50 have been involved in scandals.
The accusations range from drug trafficking to fictitious exports, and from illegal gambling to dubious bid tenders. Although many of these individuals were tried before courts of law, none received a definitive sentence.
Yet, the involvement of honorary consuls in scandals is not unique to Turkey. The Shadow Diplomats Investigation reveals how arms dealers, murderers, sex offenders and fraudsters from all over the world continue to abuse this long-overlooked segment of international diplomacy. Even terrorists are understood to have taken advantage of its lack of oversight.
The wide-ranging investigation has found that the honorary consuls system — originally meant to leverage the generosity of honorable citizens — may be morphing into a risky form of rogue diplomacy that threatens rule of law around the world.
Very shady diplomats operating far from home
Although data on the actual number of honorary consuls is sketchy, it is estimated that there are thousands operating worldwide.
Aung Moe Myint is one of them. As an honorary Belarus consul in Myanmar, Myint’s company helped procure missiles and aircraft for the ruling junta, which has brutally governed the country since 2021.
Ladislav Otakar Skakal is another example. As former honorary Italian consul in Egypt, he tried to smuggle five mummy masks out of the country along with more than 21,000 historic coins and even a wooden coffin. The goods, packed into a diplomatic container bearing his name and former title, were shipped to the Italian city of Salerno, according to court records.
Italian authorities only searched the container and discovered the relics inside due to a paperwork mistake. In 2020, Skakal was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Cairo court — in absentia. Skakal is believed to be in Italy but even if Italian authorities chose to pursue him, the two countries don’t have an extradition treaty.
The Shadow Diplomats Investigation documented at least 500 incidences
in which honorary consuls have been involved in scandals or wrongdoing.
What is an honorary consul?
Honorary consuls work on behalf of foreign governments from their home countries, often in places where there is no embassy or consulate. They are supposed to promote the interests of the country they represent, using their local influence to help citizens of that country in case of difficulties or an emergency.
They can also perform limited consular work but do not receive money for it. However, the title of honorary consul opens the lucrative world of diplomacy to its holder, allowing them to enjoy some of the same advantages as professionally employed diplomats.
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations regulates the rules of international diplomacy. According to it, honorary consuls do not enjoy full immunity. They do, however, enjoy immunity on all matters strictly related to their consular acts.
When honorary consuls declare their suitcases — or even entire containers — as consular baggage, these may not be easily opened at customs. This is an attractive incentive for criminals to seek the title.
Although governments are supposed to conduct security checks on individuals before granting final approval of honorary consul status, the investigation shows how many are accepted despite being involved in dubious activities. Nor are they subject to oversight.
Many privileges, very few controls
Furthermore, according to Article 61 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, “The consular archives and documents of a consular post headed by an honorary consular officer shall be inviolable at all times and wherever they may be, provided that they are kept separate from other papers and documents.”
This was the case with Marco Carrai, an honorary Israeli consul in Florence, Italy. Carrai was suspected of having illegally financed a political party. When Italian investigators searched his office for evidence in 2019, they had to leave many documents untouched because Carrai simply declared they were related to consular matters. When asked, he declined to comment on the allegations.
Honorary consuls can also request official protection, diplomatic license plates, diplomatic or other special passports, private parking spaces or weapons licenses.
Although they are not tax-exempt in their personal work, the premises and expenses they designate as consular may be exempt from taxation.
Former Turkish Ambassador to the United Kingdom Unal Cevikoz told DW it is not fair to exempt honorary consuls from obligations that apply to other citizens, and that granting special benefits to honorary consuls leads them to compete with their commercial rivals on an “unfair basis.”
Well-intentioned post is easily abused
Berlin’s Foreign Office advises German citizens who require assistance while abroad to first contact an honorary consul, as they “best know the local situation.” Many honorary consuls do indeed help thousands of people who require assistance.
For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many honorary consuls around the world helped thousands of people return to their home countries.
Although the foreign affairs ministries of most countries have strict supervision and discipline mechanisms for official diplomats, honorary consuls are not subject to such supervision.
The primary safeguard in the honorary consul system is communication with the representative country when an honorary consul is arrested or detained, or pending trial. But even this is not always tracked or followed up on.
There have been numerous cases of honorary consuls who kept their privileges long after they went to trial — some even after being sentenced. An honorary German consul in Brazil, for example, was fired only after journalists began raising questions with the German Foreign Office about her trial over a dubious land deal.
Terrorist seeking and awarding honorary consul privileges
The investigation’s findings show that the system has also been abused by international terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah.
David Asher, a former senior counterterrorism financing expert assigned to the US Department of Defense, said: “Hezbollah has realized that if they use these honorary consuls … they can basically move stuff with impunity and no one is ever going to bust them — you flash your diplomatic passport, no questions asked.”
“It’s a huge seam in our international law enforcement capabilities sweep.”
Experts assume terrorist organizations have been abusing the privileges of honorary consuls for many years.
For example, in 2012, Faouzi Jaber, an arms dealer close to Hezbollah, offered consular titles to undercover US investigators posing as arms buyers for Colombia’s FARC guerrillas. “Now is your chance for immunity,” he told the officials according to an audio recording. “I can make you consuls,” he said, along with “your friends.”
Today the arms dealer claims to have been deceived by investigators and denies having ties to Hezbollah.
According to a leaked diplomatic cable from 2007, Liberia removed almost all its honorary consuls to protect the reputation of the state, as many were involved in drug trafficking, money laundering or the illegal sale of passports.
Recognizing such risks, countries such as the US, Argentina, Canada, Bolivia and Costa Rica do not appoint honorary consuls.
Honorary consul titles for sale
The Shadow Diplomats Investigation also shows that demand for honorary consul titles is growing.
Apparently, so many people want to become honorary consuls that an entire cottage industry of consultants has sprung up promising to appoint honorary consuls from smaller countries in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.
Elma Global, an international company specialized in relocation and citizenship questions, purports to sell the title of honorary consul for different countries. On its website, the company promotes its services as “VIP travel through diplomatic channels” and lists “no annoying customs checks” and “unlimited entry and exit privileges” as some of the advantages of being an honorary consul.
“We know there are a lot of scams online about honorary consul or diplomatic appointments but we’re not like them,” Elma Global told ICIJ, adding that it does not guarantee honorary consul appointments.reveal how this long-overlooked element of international diplomacy is increasingly being abused.
Ilyas Golcuklu from the international law department of Altinbas University in Turkey believes reform is necessary to ensure transparency in the use and awarding of honorary consul status.
“Honorary consul requests should be handled sensitively and should be rejected with sovereignty if they do not serve the purpose of establishing commercial relations, if there is chance of it being used for criminal purposes, or if they abuse the status,” says Golcuklu.
He adds that both the dispatching and host nations have a duty to apply this limited immunity only in exceptional cases.
The Shadow Diplomats Investigation, however, indicates that misuse may be turning the honorary consul institution into a liability.
Edited by: Hülya Schenk
Journalists from DW’s Turkish desk were among 160 investigative journalists from 46 countries who worked for months on this honorary consuls global investigation project, initiated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and ProPublica, an US-based nonprofit media organization.