The first Consul to work in the Finland area was appointed in the year 1779. The Consular Corps of Helsinki in Finland began its activities in 1925. Even before that some Honorary Consuls were appointed to work in Finland.
By Harry Blässar, Former Dean and longtime Secretary of Consular Corps
“The Honorary Consul in the Course of Time”
When looking for the origin of the consular system it is difficult to avoid resorting to the old introductory opening “already the ancient Romans”, for this term really dates from classic antiquity. The word is a derivation from the Latin verb consulere, which means supervising. From there originates the saying “the consuls watch.”
However, it was not until the 13th century that the trading centres of the Mediterranean countries developed an activity of representatives that may be considered as the origin of present-time consular duties. Trusted persons residing in important seaports and business centres were authorized to provide assistance to citizens of a foreign state and to look after their interests. Originally these persons were representatives sent from the country in question to another country; but their principal was not the state, since their activities were financed by the business life of their home countries. In the beginning they were called “merchant consuls”, while the terms consul electus, “overseas consul” and “honorary consul” gradually came into use.
With the passage of time it became a practice to nominate as consul a local businessman or a person who already had relations with the state he was to represent. Thus he was elected among the citizens of the receiving country, and it was his duty to get familiarized with the interests of the sending country, and to promote them in his territory of residence. In this way the honorary consul of an Italian city state, living in the towns of the North Sea or the Baltic Sea, had to make him self conversant with the import of olive oil, even if his own business was export of furs. The consul of a German principality in Egypt, specializing in exporting figs, alabaster and pomegranates, now also had to deal with the import of steel.
Gradually the institution of honorary consuls grew in importance, and the consuls were awarded rights and privileges, parallel to the increase in their duties.
The importance of the honorary consul-system diminished between the 16th and 18th centuries. The reason for this was the development of diplomatic representation, which successively supplanted the proven consular practice of looking after the interests of a certain state through representatives stationed in various localities in another country. The time was not yet ripe for the cooperation of the diplomatic representation and the honorary consulate in complement of each other. Today it is an existing fact in every country where the last mentioned system is in use.
The industrial revolution revived the need to take advantage of a residing consul’s knowledge and experience in the focal points of commerce, shipping and culture in a foreign country. The trading communities gladly welcomed his free services. In 1754 Maria Theresia, the Empress of Austria, founded an actual Academy for educating persons interested in the consulship. But this institution did not become permanent, and it finished its activity 50 years later.
In the 19th century the career consuls came into the picture, i.e. governments began to send their own assigned and paid representatives to large population centres abroad. France was the first country to appoint career consuls. Consequently both a professional and voluntary consular practice was now pursued. However, the honorary consulship was still to meet one critical period. After the First World War the League of Nations made an attempt to codify international law, and in connection with that, opinions were voiced from various quarters demanding the concept of honorary consuls be completely deferred to history. Amongst other things, this stance was justified with the argument that the position of the honorary consul was practiced only to promote his personal and business interests. It was not sufficiently understood that the consular work, in fact, provides particular advantages for the sending state, and that a consul who takes the upright and genuine attitude towards the consular position performs a great deal of selfless work without financial compensation in favour of the citizens of the country he acts for.
Of course, consulship is reciprocal both between states and between individuals; the consul’s position helps to open doors which otherwise could be more difficult to open. At any rate, an honorary consul with a serious disposition always carries out valuable work furthering the interests of all parties involved.
The honorary consulship is backed by the Convention on Consular Relations drawn up in Vienna in 1963 and signed by 113 states. In Finland the text of this convention is collected as a decree of 1980 in the Finnish Statute Book. It goes under the heading: “Asetus konsulisuhteita koskevan Wienin yleissopimuksen voimaansaattamisesta.” Specificly about honorary consuls there is chapter No. III: ”Kunniakonsuleita ja heidän johtamiaan konsuliedustustoja koskevat säännökset, artikla 58.” The entire wording of this decree can be found in internet: Valtiosopimukset. Asetus 50/1980.
The rules of the Vienna Convention ought to be regarded for every consul as a tool, as it offers a clarification of both the duties and the rights of the honorary consul.
The duties of the consul are defined in Paragraph 5, (“konsulitehtävät, artikla 5), the tasks of which are the same both for career consuls and honorary consuls. In the consular mission there is the obligation to protect in the receiving country the interests and the citizens, as well as private and juridical persons, of the sending state within the limits of international law.
The consul has many duties in the field of administration, such as the authenticating of various kinds of documents. Some states authorize their honorary consuls to issue visas and even passports, others only transmit the applications to the nearest diplomatic representation, or give instructions as to how the applications are to be made. Few people travelling these days do not have access to internet, which facilitates these matters a great deal.
Furthermore, the consul has to report on political conditions and important developments in the receiving country, and on cultural events. The assignment varies very much, depending on the country in which the consul is stationed, and also on the sending state. Normally the most important task relates to trade and the establishment of new business relations; developing countries may need some added assistance for finding demand for its export products, as the exporters do not have the means for promoting their goods to the same extent as those of the industrialized countries. Some consuls may have to deal with a lot of migrant workers. Sending states with shipping lines calling at the ports of the receiving state often appoint an honorary consul to such seaport towns.
Consequently, through the good relations with the business community the honorary consul is often of great help to the export companies of the sending state. By looking for the right contacts a firm without sufficient knowledge of the local conditions, or needing a piece of good advice, can in many contexts rely on the experience of the honorary consul, who you might say also works as a sort of commercial secretary. This capacity applies especially to the consuls nominated by small countries like Finland.
The honorary consul has been bestowed certain rights for of the purpose of the consular work to be appropriately carried out. These privileges are not, however, comparable to those of the career consul, who in fact, is a diplomat, and enjoys diplomatic immunity. But the honorary consul may all the same get involved in difficult situations, in which the interests of the citizens have to be protected by the consul before the authorities.
The honorary consul is not under the obligation to testify in court or surrender any official correspondence connected with the exercise of the consular functions. But there is no immunity from criminal or civil prosecution for an honorary consul. The main stipulations established in favour of the activities of the honorary consul are as follows:
- The receiving state must protect the honorary consul in performing the consular work
- The honorary consulate has the right to use the flag and the coat of arms of the sending state
- The honorary consul has full right to move freely within the receiving country’s territory, and there must be freedom of communications
- The receiving country must protect the buildings and the area of the consulate, and these must be exempted from taxes, provided the properties are in the possession of the sending state
- The archives of the consulate are inviolable, and the documents contained therein need not be surrendered to anyone, on condition that they are kept apart from other material in the office
- The honorary consul does not need to pay duties for such articles that are meant for the official work of the consulate, i.e. flags, coat of arms, rubber stamps, printed matter and other office equipment
- Fees collected by the honorary consul for notarial services or other consular functions are exempted from taxes; same applies to payments related to the consular services received from the authorities of the sending state
- The honorary consul need not participate in the administration of public duties in the receiving country. These provisions, of course, like most above mentioned special rights, as well as the duties, depend on the laws and procedures of both the sending and the receiving state.
The International consul’s organization F.I.C.A.C. , Féderation International des Corps et Associations Consulaires, was founded in Copenhagen in 1982. Its purpose is to provide a debating forum at an international level for consuls working around the world, and to contribute to the protection of their interests so that they can meet the requirements set for them.
The Consular Corps of Helsinki has had its representation in the Executive Committee of this organization since its founding until year 2000 – please read more here.
The so-called Copenhagen Consular Resolution was completed at the founding meeting on the 2nd October 1982 and was signed by the founding members, i.e. all the five Nordic countries plus Italy and Greece. The declaration specifies the aims of the organization based on the principles stipulated in the Vienna Convention and on the obligation of all receiving states to respect these aims. Later the Constitution of the organization was updated, first in May 1998, next in the year 2006. In 2010 F.I.C.A.C. was registered as a Representative to the European Commission (EC), which is in charge of NGOs for the EU.
Following the Founding Meeting in Copenhagen and the principles laid down there, the Consular Corps of Finland held discussions with the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This resulted in upgraded co-operation between the Foreign Ministry and the Consular Corps. In its letter on the 25th May 1983 addressed to the Corps the Ministry stated, among other things:
“The status of honorary consuls has been the centre of attention in many contexts all around the world. Finland has almost 500 consular representatives abroad. As is natural, the Ministry endeavours continuously to develop and improve their working conditions. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs finds that the principles set forth in the declaration of the F.I.C.A.C. dated 2nd October 1982 are very much to the point for the successful performance of consular duties, and for its own part the Ministry will do everything possible in order to promote their realization.”
In April 1988 F.I.C.A.C. celebrated in Vienna the 25th Anniversary of the signing of the Vienna Convention. About 150 consuls with their spouses participated in the event, representing 52 states. Finland’s contribution to the meeting was prominent: more than 30 consuls were present. The banquet was held in the same hall in Hofburg where the famous Vienna Congress took place in 1815.
In 1989 F.I.C.A.C. was accepted as a non-governmental organization into the United Nations. The connection is important for the efforts aimed at improving the consul’s safety, which every now and then has become threatened by terrorism in some countries.
There are around 200 Honorary Consuls in Finland representing 79 foreign states. The capital, Helsinki, and its satellite towns, have 59 honorary consuls representing 55 states. Overseas countries which have no diplomatic representation in the capital, often have nominated an Honorary Consul (or Consul General or Vice-Consul) to be responsible for the territory of the whole country. Some states, like the United States, Russia, India and Argentina, have not adopted the honorary consular system. They resort to career consuls only, although within these countries there are acting honorary consuls nominated by foreign states.
In addition to looking after the interests of the sending state, the honorary consul’s scope of activities includes efforts to facilitate social relations between individuals, and to even out conflicting opinions between people belonging to different racial, ethnic, religious and political groups, and with divergent cultural backgrounds. All in all, the honorary consuls’ duties are extremely varied, and as such are disposed to give more meaning to life, and constitute variation to the every-day job for making one’s living. The consulship is an assignment based both on service and reward; it is a kind of voluntary engagement aimed at helping people and the community, when there is need for such service that a consul can offer.
More and more governments realize and appreciate the important role and function of the Honorary Consuls, both due to the positive experience which has been obtained from their work, and the budgetary problems which many Foreign Ministries face nowadays. The Honorary Consulship can be expected to be met in an appreciated manner in the future world wide.
Former Dean and longtime Secretary of Consular Corps, Hon. Consul General