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Ambassadors and Consuls

AMBASSADORS AND CONSULS

An ambassador is the foreign diplomatic representative of a nation who is authorized to handle political negotiations between his or her country and the country where the ambassador has been assigned. A consul is the commercial agent of a nation, who is empowered only to engage in business transactions, and not political matters in the country where he or she is stationed.

The president with the consent of the Senate appoints ambassadors and consuls whereas the secretary of state appoints staff officers and other subordinate employees.

Powers and Duties

The powers of an ambassador are specified in his or her credentials, or documents of introduction, which the ambassador submits to the foreign government. In addition to responsibility for political negotiations, an American ambassador may initiate legal proceedings on behalf of the United States and defend suits instituted against it. A foreign ambassador in the United States has similar duties regarding his or her government.

In general, a consul is authorized to safeguard the legal rights and property interests of the citizens of his or her country and to appear in court to ascertain that the laws of the nation where he or she is assigned are administered impartially to all of the ambassador's compatriots. A U.S. citizen who has legal difficulties in a foreign country should consult the United States consul.

Consuls are also empowered and obligated to protect the estates of their countrymen and-women who die within their consular districts. This duty terminates when the decedent's heirs are represented by an attorney.

Diplomatic Immunity

The development of harmonious international relations and protection against arrest, harassment, or other unjustified actions taken against diplomatic representatives constitute the objectives of diplomatic immunity. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which became effective as part of the federal law in 1972, governs diplomatic immunity by granting various degrees of immunity from civil and criminal liability to the members of diplomatic missions.

Diplomatic Agents The supervisor of a mission, such as an ambassador, and members of the mission staff who possess diplomatic rank are diplomatic agents. Such an agent is immune from criminal liability in the nation in which he or she serves, but the commission of a crime may result in a recall request to the ambassador's country. His or her expulsion may ensue upon the refusal of any such request.

In addition, a diplomatic agent is immune from civil lawsuits, except for actions involving estates, when he or she is the executor, administrator, or beneficiary; actions concerning real property held by the diplomatic agent for personal, not official functions; and actions relating to professional or business activities that are beyond the scope of diplomatic duties. A diplomatic agent is not required to testify as a witness; and the family members living in the agent's household enjoy the same immunities.

Due to the hardship imposed on the victims of motor vehicle accidents in the United States caused by foreign diplomats who have diplomatic immunity, federal law mandates that mission members and their families insure their personal motor vehicles, boats, and airplanes. If the mission has similar vehicles registered in its name, it also must purchase liability insurance. An action for damages for property loss, personal injuries, or wrongful death can be maintained directly against the diplomat's insurance company and is tried by the court, presiding without a jury.

Staff Members The administrative and technical staffs and families and household members of the mission are completely immune from criminal liability, but are immune from civil liability only for official acts. Similar rules apply to members of the service staff employed as domestics, but their families and private servants employed by staff members are not so protected against liability.

Consuls Consuls are not diplomatic agents and, therefore, they are usually amenable to civil lawsuits and criminal prosecution in the country

try where they are assigned. Federal law, however, extends immunity to consuls from all suits and proceedings in state courts. This prevents any embarrassment to foreign nations that might ensue from such proceedings.

Other Exemptions Diplomatic agents in the United States and the members of their households are generally exempt from federal, state, and municipal taxes. They are responsible, however, for indirect taxes that are part of the price of goods, taxes on property inherited from a citizen, taxes on any real property they own privately, or capital gains taxes on profits from personal investments. Diplomatic agents have no obligation to serve in the U.S. armed forces. These exemptions also apply to the administrative and technical staffs of the mission and their families. The service staff and private servants are exempt from taxes on wages received from their employment with the mission or its members.

further readings

Keeley, Robert V., ed. 2000. First Line of Defense: Ambassadors, Embassies, and American Interests Abroad. Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Diplomacy.

Lehman, Daniel J. 2002. "The Individual Right to Consular Access." Law & Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice 20 (summer): 313–40.

Pittman, Andrew B. 2001."Ambassadorial Waiver of Foreign State Sovereign Immunity to Domestic Adjudication in United States Courts." Washington and Lee Law Review 58 (spring): 645–88.

cross-references

Diplomatic Agents; Diplomatic Immunity; International Law; State Department.

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