What Consulates Do
There are two classes of official international government representatives accepted by U.S. law and covered by two separate international treaties – the Vienna Conventions. They are diplomats and consular officers. Diplomats are posted to embassies in the capital of a country (or to the United Nations), not normally to other cities. Diplomatic missions deal with official relations between nations such as war, peace, alliances, treaties, etc. Diplomats and their families enjoy personal inviolability and are entitled to extensive privileges & immunities under U.S. law.
Consular officers are either members of a country’s foreign service or are local residents who are appointed by the foreign government to perform consular duties. All consuls must then be formally accepted by the U.S. Department of State which issues an exequatur allowing them to act in their official capacity in the United States.
Consular officers have two primary responsibilities:
1) To officially develop economic, commercial, scientific, diplomatic and cultural relations between the country they represent and the area in which they serve. Increasingly this means promoting commerce – trade, technology-transfer and investment – both ways. Consulates facilitate scientific, academic, cultural, business and professional exchange. They make arrangements for official visits in both directions. Consulates are a source of information on the country they represent: the economy, the society, culture, and tourism.
2) To safeguard the interests of the sending country and its citizens traveling or resident in their consular district. Traditionally these include issuing passports and other official documents (and visas for others to visit their country), helping travelers in distress, signing death certificates, legalizing or delivering official documents, and assisting travelers who have trouble with local law enforcement or immigration authorities. Some consulates have considerable responsibility for supervising their national flag shipping. Specific services are listed below.
TYPICAL CONSULAR SERVICES
- Issue passports and other documents to citizens of their countries. Assist with citizenship matters.
- Issue tourist visas to others visiting the country.
- Issue work or residence permits for the country.
- Assist visitors in distress: illness, accident, disaster, or criminal acts by others.
- Assist visitors in the emergency transfer of funds.
- Assist citizens who are arrested by police or immigration authorities. Arrange for legal representation if appropriate.
- Arrange for the repatriation of citizens.
- Legalize or certify certain documents.
- Issue reports of death or accidents.
- Safeguard citizens’ interests in pension, estate and inheritance matters.
- Trace missing persons.
- Facilitate the collection of debts to their governments.
- Locate interpreters or translators.
- Facilitate expatriate voting.
- Supervise & inspect national flag vessels, aircraft and their crews.
- Promote commercial relations & scientific exchange.
- Promote exchanges in the arts. Arrange for visiting cultural exhibits and events.
- Provide information about their country.
- Promote academic and professional exchanges.
- Host diplomatic visits
WHAT CONSULATES DON’T DO
Consular functions vary greatly from post to post. Each government has very different policies as to the duties and responsibilities it will assign to each individual post. The work of a post depends on its location, on the country’s interests, on local requirements (tourism vs. trade promotion vs. registration of shipping vs. assistance to citizens vs. promotion of culture) and sometimes on the individual assigned as Head of Post. Nevertheless the local consular post is a good place to begin inquiries.
RELATIONS WITH LOCAL AUTHORITIES
To carry out their duties consular officers establish official contact on behalf of their governments with State and local government officials and U.S. Federal officials within their consular district. State, country and municipal authorities and other local leaders utilize consulates as a convenient and direct link with foreign governments for purposes of trade, technology, investment & cultural exchange, and for other negotiations.
Although consulates are primarily concerned with protecting and assisting their own citizens, they can often be of considerable help to local authorities, and individuals, in the resolution of specific problems.
The Vienna Convention requires that foreigners be allowed access to their consular officials. State or local law may require authorities to notify the consulate of the arrest of a foreign citizen whether or not the citizen wants the consulate informed.
Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations consular officers enjoy immunity from local law with regard to their official acts. However outside their job they are in general fully subject to U.S. law, except as may be provided by individual treaties between the U.S. and their countries.
The existence of more than one consul in a given location creates a body known as a consular corps. It is a body sui generis without legal standing to act collectively. (Each government must act for itself). For convenience most consular corps organize themselves to exchange information and meet with local leaders. Within the Saint Louis Consular Corps, the President or the Vice President represent the Corps whenever required.