In a first-of-its-kind global investigation, ProPublica has joined the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 60 news organizations around the world to shine a light on one of the least-examined roles in international governance: the honorary consul.
Founded centuries ago, the honorary consul system was meant as a lifeline for countries unable to afford foreign embassies, but it has since broadened into a mainstay of international relations. Consuls promote the interests of the foreign governments that appoint them and in exchange, they gain entry into the world of diplomacy and receive some of the same protections and perks provided to career diplomats. The “Shadow Diplomats” investigation exposes how widespread abuse of this system has empowered and protected unscrupulous operators and imperiled vulnerable communities across the world.
Among the investigation’s most critical findings: Accused terrorist financiers have served as honorary consuls, wielding coveted diplomatic privileges that include the right to transport consular bags across borders without law enforcement scrutiny. “A huge seam in our international law enforcement capabilities,” one longtime Department of Defense adviser said.
The investigation also found that honorary consuls embedded by Russian President Vladimir Putin around the world remain in place and have publicly supported the invasion of Ukraine. Several have worked to undermine fragile democracies.
All told, the investigation identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls who were publicly accused of crimes or embroiled in controversy. Some were convicted of serious offenses including drug trafficking, murder, weapons dealing and sex crimes. Others were caught exploiting their status for personal gain. A number drew criticism for their support of authoritarian or corrupt regimes, including Syria and North Korea. Nine current and former honorary consuls identified by ProPublica and ICIJ have been linked to terrorist groups by law enforcement and governments.
Today’s lead article, “The Global Threat of Rogue Diplomacy,” focuses on consuls with ties to Hezbollah, the political party, social services provider and militant group in Lebanon designated by the United States and other countries as a terrorist organization. Included with today’s story are 14 profiles of prominent honorary consuls whose personal, business or diplomatic activities have drawn scrutiny, in some cases from the highest levels of government.
The project will continue to roll out over several weeks.
ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle said the “Shadow Diplomats” project revealed the high price being paid for a secretive, largely unchecked system. “The broken honorary consul system urgently needs to be reformed,” Ryle said. “This examination of diplomacy gone bad demands that the status quo be upended and that higher standards are immediately implemented.”
“Our investigation of honorary consuls — a first-time collaboration between ProPublica and ICIJ — is a groundbreaking look at an opaque system that has gone without oversight for decades,” ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg said.
"The ‘Shadow Diplomats’ investigation is another powerful example of how teams of journalists — in this case, more than 150 — can expose serious problems within our borders and beyond."
More information about the investigation can be found here and on the ICIJ website.