Shadow Diplomats is a collaboration between the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Propublica and 59 media partners from 46 countries. This guide aims to answer some of the key questions about cooperation and the Honorary Consul system, which is the focus of the investigation.
What is the Shadow Diplomats’ Investigation?
Journalists from 46 countries shed light on one of the most understudied roles in international diplomacy: the honorary consul.
Reporting revealed that scores of corrupt, violent and dangerous appointees, including those accused of supporting terrorist regimes, have turned a system designed to harness the generosity of honorable citizens into a dangerous form of rogue diplomacy.
What is an honorary consul?
Unlike ambassadors and other professional emissaries, honorary consuls are part-time volunteer diplomats who work from where they already live, often drawing on connections and clout to further the interests of the foreign governments they appoint. In return, Consuls gain access to the lofty world of diplomacy and receive some of the same protections and perks accorded to career diplomats.
Under international law, immunities and protections for honorary consuls are limited. In practice, however, protections and privileges can be far-reaching.
Typical duties include welcoming a visiting dignitary, helping stranded tourists, and promoting closer business relationships. Some Honorary Consuls are in charge of issuing visas.
How to become Honorary Consul
Honorary consuls are appointed by governments to look after their interests abroad. The country where the consul lives must then approve the appointment.
For example, a typical honorary consul might be a celebrity, former politician, or successful businessman with ties to the appointing country.
The title has become so coveted that it has spawned an industry of online consultants who promise to help appoint honorary consuls from impoverished countries for tens of thousands of dollars in fees.
“People buy these things or get them as a reward for supporting a political candidate and people have no idea what to do. And no one is busy reviewing them,” said Bob Jarvis, a professor of international and constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, who has campaigned for an overhaul of the system for nearly 40 years.
In which countries are there honorary consuls? Does my country appoint or host them?
Most countries participate in the honorary consul system, either absorbing honoraria from other countries and/or appointing their own representatives abroad.
ICIJ has compiled an index that measures how each country provides information on honorary consuls sent or received.
What are some of the key findings of the shadow diplomats investigation?
The investigation identified at least 500 current and former Honorary Consuls charged with crimes or involved in controversies.
- Criminal Consuls: Some consuls have been accused of serious crimes, including drug and arms trafficking, murder and fraud. At least 57 have been convicted of crimes while serving as Honorary Consul.
- Abuse of Status: Some consuls abused their positions to enrich themselves, evade prosecution, or advance political ends. Consuls were accused of hiding cash and contraband in their offices and pockets. They have relied on diplomatic credentials to avoid searches, arrests and detention and to facilitate travel.
- Links to Terrorist Groups: Nine Honorary Consuls identified by ProPublica and ICIJ have been linked to terrorist groups by law enforcement agencies and governments. Most were affiliated with Hezbollah, a political party, social service provider and militant group in Lebanon. Former US officials who investigated Hezbollah’s financial network said the terrorist group’s use of honorary consul status was well organized and threatened national and international security.
- Defenders of Putin: Some consuls have been publicly criticized or removed from their posts for supporting and defending Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in several cases they have been accused of acting as Kremlin agents. Moscow’s honorary consuls remained active in some countries even as the US and its allies imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Pay-to-Play: An online industry of consultants offers to help provide fee-based consultation appointments for tens of thousands of dollars in fees. “Travel as a VIP through diplomatic channels,” boasts one company online.
- Oversight issues: Governments have appointed thousands of honorary consuls, but no one has a reliable number. Seventy-eight countries do not publicly identify their honorary consuls, a lack of transparency that can hamper law enforcement. Despite reports of problems, few countries have publicly announced reviews or reforms of the system.
What data was used in the investigation of the shadow diplomats?
ICIJ, ProPublica and their media partners conducted a unique review of public and confidential records of Honorary Consuls. Reporters combed through media archives in dozens of languages and searched court records from India to Canada. For example, in Germany, Finland, El Savador, and other countries, reporters obtained information through public records. In other countries, including Italy, North Macedonia and Guinea, reporters obtained documents from secret services, prosecutors and banks.
Why is the investigation called “shadow diplomats”?
Although honorary consuls have existed for centuries, they remain one of the least understood and least researched categories of diplomats. Many countries do not publish the names of the honorary consuls they appoint abroad, making it difficult to trace citizens who help represent foreign governments.
Why is the investigation of shadow diplomats important?
The shadow diplomats’ investigation shows that for years some honorary consuls around the world have used their legal status and protections to commit wrongdoing and evade justice.
Reporting found honorary consuls with ties to terrorist groups and others taking advantage of the diplomatic protection attached to the appointments to try to dodge lawsuits and smuggle goods across borders.
Yet few countries have publicly reviewed or reformed their honorary consul systems.
What is the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)?
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is a donor-supported investigative news agency and a consortium of reporters and media partners working together to tell stories that rock the world.
ICIJ works with the world’s largest and smallest media organizations to do the watchdog journalism they used to do on their own. We maintain a network of trusted journalists that has grown through invitation to include 280 of the finest investigative reporters from more than 100 countries and territories.
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Who were the reporters and news outlets who worked to investigate the shadow diplomats?
The investigation of the shadow diplomats is the first collaboration between the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica. One hundred and sixty journalists from 60 media companies from 46 countries participated in the reporting. You can read the full list here.
How does the ICIJ select its research partners?
In bringing together a collaboration such as the shadow diplomats investigation, ICIJ begins by assessing the data and identifying areas of reporting need, with a particular focus on engaging journalists in countries where we know there are important stories and strong public interest will give. We then prioritize finding partners with proven investigative credentials who we can trust to work discreetly, cooperatively and respectfully with reporters from around the world.
How can I contact ICIJ if I want to share a tip or reveal documents?
ICIJ encourages whistleblowers to submit any type of content that may be of public interest – documents, photos, video clips, as well as story tips – securely. We accept any information relating to possiblemisconductbycorporations,governmentagenciesorpublicservicesinany country, anywhere in the world. We do our our best to ensure the confidentiality of our sources. Here’s how to contact us securely.