Shadow Diplomats shines light on one of the least-examined roles in international diplomacy: the honorary consul. These volunteer diplomats work from their home countries to promote the interests of foreign governments, typically in places without an embassy or consulate.
Shadow Diplomats, an investigation by ICIJ, ProPublica and 60 media partners, identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls accused of crimes or embroiled in controversies, before, while or after they were appointed, including some caught exploiting their status for personal gain. The team found that convicted drug traffickers, murderers, sex offenders and fraudsters have served as honorary consuls.
“Shadow Diplomats” forced reforms to a mainstay arrangement that for decades resisted even modest change. The governments of seven countries have so far announced investigations, removed consuls or pledged changes to the system that empowers them. Two honorary consuls resigned even before the stories were published.
In Finland, the protocol chief at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he was unaware that some consuls had been convicted of tax fraud, bribery and environmental crimes. The ministry planned to conduct an immediate review.
In Brazil, authorities opened an investigation into crimes committed by honorary consuls following a request by Deputy Prosecutor General Lucas Furtado. “It is clear that there may be damage … to public coffers,” he said.
A top official in Paraguay said the government is planning to review its diplomatic laws and regulations.
In Germany, politicians called for change, citing national security concerns. “It would therefore be necessary to reform the system, which invites abuse,” said German Parliament member Roderich Kiesewetter. “Regular training, security clearance must also be enforced.”
The Foreign Ministry in Latvia said it would investigate an honorary consul representing Indonesia who had tried to claim diplomatic immunity in legal proceedings for domestic assault.
And in the United States, national security experts called on the federal government to review protections and privileges granted to the more than 1,000 consuls here.
“It’s the one guaranteed area where the rule of law doesn’t matter — the law has no teeth,” said Suzanne Hayden, a former federal prosecutor focused on national and international security. “There is not even an opportunity to test the law because all you have to do is say, ‘I have diplomatic immunity,’ and when confronted, the local cops simply put their hands up and walk away. It’s just the perfect scenario for crime.”
Shadow Diplomats identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls accused of crimes or embroiled in controversies, before, while or after they were appointed, including some caught exploiting their status for personal gain.
ICIJ’s data team spent months structuring and cleaning official information released by countries, and then categorizing the controversies surrounding the honorary consuls identified by the reporting team.
The data was collected during a five months-long effort that involved students from Northwestern University’s Medill Investigative Lab, overseen by Debbie Cenziper of ProPublica, ICIJ reporter Will Fitzgibbon and media partners around the world, who reviewed court cases, NGO reports, news clips, government investigations, sanctions lists and other reports. Reporters searched court databases in Brazil, France, Ukraine, Spain, and Germany, and submitted public information requests in Croatia, Finland, El Salvador and Honduras, among other countries.
Then, using Google Sheets, ICIJ’s data team researched every case, flagging honorary consuls to specific categories and scrupulously checking sources. Out of nearly 700 cases, the team trimmed duplicates and controversies that didn’t fit selection criteria to reach a list of just over 500, which were key to identifying leads and helping with reporting efforts.
ICIJ also reviewed what type of information was provided by governments about honorary consuls. ICIJ’s analysis found that only 42 governments provided information updated in 2022.
Separately, using information from public records’ requests and lists of consuls published online, the ICIJ data team created a first-of-its-kind “transparency index” to compare what information countries make public about their honorary consuls’ appointments. ICIJ reviewed Ministries of Foreign Affairs websites and showed that the quality and availability of the information varied greatly.
The team contacted the ministries of those countries for which no information about honorary consuls could be found. Dozens of those requests went unanswered or were refused outright.
Context about the project:
The “Shadow Diplomats” investigation was entirely original. Though thousands of honorary consuls are in place worldwide, pre existing information about the system was scarce. Governments and law enforcement acknowledged having no information about criminal honorary consuls identified by reporters, and even leading academics on diplomatic law conceded they knew little or nothing at all.
Because honorary consuls are most often prominent and powerful private citizens, our reporting partners in countries that included Lebanon and Honduras faced particular dangers in raising questions and seeking information. In Guinea, our reporting partner was sued by an honorary consul who is one of the richest men in West Africa; the case was ultimately dropped.
The quality of the data on honorary consuls reviewed for the case studies as well as the transparency index varied significantly. The team looked for additional public records that would help confirm whether the person was ever appointed as honorary consul and whether the events associated with them happened while they were honorary consuls. Whereas the case studies gathered (which were not published in full) don’t include every possible case of controversies involving honorary consuls, it is still a fair representation of the most egregious stories identified by ICIJ, ProPublica and its media partners across the world.
It wasn’t always possible to identify the conclusion to a controversy mentioned in a press article or court case — for example, whether the person was convicted of a crime they were accused of committing. ICIJ therefore applied a conservative approach: cases were divided between “allegations” and “convictions” so that only proven convictions were included in a specific final count.
For the transparency index ICIJ’s data team selected six criteria against which each Ministry of Foreign Affairs website was evaluated: has the information been updated in 2022? Is the website available? Are the dates of appointment available? Do we have information for both appointed and hosted consuls? Are their names visible? Is a stand-alone list displayed (in HTML or PDF format for example), or is the information buried across different web pages?
It was also important to review foreign affairs policy by nation, as some countries share a common one — Curacao, Aruba and St Maarten are constituent countries part of the Netherlands, which publishes information on the honorary consuls present in those countries. Therefore, the index focused on analyzing countries who oversee diplomatic relations.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
The lack of public data around the world on a topic of interest can be the beginning of a global investigation. It is possible to start organizing information to explore that topic in a systematic way, by selecting what type of information to look for, where to look for it across borders and also how to document the lack of it.
For example, the team decided to gather information on what information governments made publicly available around the world and how citizens could access that information through the Ministries of Foreign Affairs websites for all countries in the world and published a transparency index ranking a total of 196 countries.
While working on topics at a global scale, it is important to review each country’s regulations to assess how the information will be gathered.
Public records requests, confidential sources, online research through news reports and on-the-ground reporting can lead to court records, government reports, media archives and intelligence reports that can be key to gather information on case studies as well as report on key stories.
A collaborative effort with journalists across countries can help advance both data gathering processes as well as reporting efforts. It can help cross-seed data findings and support and motivate journalists who might have never used data.
While organizing information on a spreadsheet tied to case studies, it is important to document the process, establish the criteria that will be used, keep track of the sources that support each point of information and allocate time to fact-check the information that was gathered.