2 Principles and practice
2.1 International legal framework
Under international law, everyone has a duty to comply with the legislation of the country where they are staying at any given time. This applies both to the inhabitants of the country and to visitors. According to international law, the way a state exercises authority in its territory is considered to be that state’s internal affairs. However, human rights obligations and other international obligations to which the state is subject set limits for how the state may treat both its own citizens and citizens of other countries.
Therefore, the kind of assistance that the Norwegian authorities may provide to Norwegian citizens abroad is not only contingent on Norwegian legislation and policies, but also on the legislation of the country where that person happens to be.
Norway’s ability to safeguard Norwegian citizens’ interests in, or in relation to, another country may be governed by international agreements, in addition to national legislation and basic principles of international law. The most important multilateral agreements for Norway in the consular area are the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations1 and the Helsinki Treaty on Nordic Cooperation.2 Norway has also entered into a number of bilateral consular agreements.
Boks 2.1 The Vienna Convention and the Helsinki Treaty
The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations provides a comprehensive framework for consular relations between states. It gives a detailed overview of consular functions and underscores the receiving state’s duty to ensure that embassies, consulates-general and honorary consulates are able to exercise these functions. It also establishes an overall system that enables states to give their citizens consular protection.
The Helsinki Treaty forms the basis for Nordic cooperation. The treaty includes provisions governing consular cooperation between the foreign services of the five Nordic countries and between their missions abroad.
A key provision of the treaty sets out that public officials in the foreign services of any of the Nordic countries are to assist citizens of another Nordic country if that country is not represented in the territory concerned. The Nordic cooperation also includes close cooperation in connection with natural disasters, war and other crises.
2.2 No legal right to consular assistance
The primary responsibility for providing assistance to Norwegians abroad lies with the Foreign Service. According to section 1 of the Foreign Service Act,3 two of the Foreign Service’s primary functions are related to consular matters. They are as follows:
to provide advice and assistance to Norwegian citizens in relation to foreign authorities, persons and institutions; and
to provide assistance to Norwegian citizens abroad, including in connection with criminal prosecutions, accidents, illness and death.
The Foreign Service performs functions on its own behalf or on behalf of other Norwegian authorities and institutions. The provisions of the Foreign Service Act are further supplemented by the provisions of the Instructions for the Foreign Service.4
However, Norwegians abroad are not legally entitled to consular assistance.5 This is partly because the Norwegian authorities do not have enforcement jurisdiction on the territory of other sovereign states.
Nor may the Norwegian authorities force Norwegians abroad to accept assistance. The kind of assistance that the Norwegian authorities can provide to Norwegian citizens abroad is contingent on several sets of legislation, the person’s ties to Norway, the country where the person happens to be and the consular resources available. It is always up to the person concerned to decide whether or not to contact the Norwegian authorities and accept any offer of consular assistance.
Self-help is a fundamental principle of all consular assistance. The most important thing people can do to help themselves is to ensure that they have adequate and valid insurance coverage. An act that in Norway would barely arouse the authorities’ interest may be regarded as a serious offence in some countries. A number of people have found out the hard way that there is a big difference between being arrested with a small amount of hashish in Norway and in certain countries of the Middle East. Others have found themselves in difficult situations while visiting parents-in-law abroad because their children have been considered to be citizens of the country in question, where the legal relationship between parents and children is very different to that in Norway. It is therefore always important for people to acquaint themselves with the rules and customs of the country they are visiting and to show respect and understanding when they come up against them.
Boks 2.2 An example of local rules and customs
The rules for the citizens of Dubai, tourists, public and private institutions:
“Indecent” behaviour (kissing, holding hands)
Warning or fine (particularly gross offences may be punishable by imprisonment and/or deportation)
Consuming alcohol outside designated areas
Fine or imprisonment
Purchasing alcohol without a licence to do so
Fine or imprisonment
Driving while under the influence of alcohol
Fine, imprisonment and/or deportation – confiscation of vehicle
Drug abuse or possession of drugs
Fine, imprisonment and deportation
Showing disrespect for Islamic customs and symbols
Fine, imprisonment and deportation
Showing disrespect for the customs and symbols of other religions
Fine or imprisonment
Using vulgar language
Fine or imprisonment
Littering and spitting
Warning or fine
Failing to pick up a pet dog’s excrement
Warning or fine
Vandalising public facilities
Failing to respect the environment and surroundings
Warning or fine
2.3 Resources for dealing with consular matters
Most of the assistance to Norwegians abroad is provided directly by the 95 Norwegian embassies and consulates-general located in many parts of the world. These are diplomatic career missions6 staffed by personnel posted from Norway. Such assistance is also provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo and Norway’s some 380 honorary consulates, as well as by consulates of the other Nordic countries in places where Norway does not have a diplomatic or consular presence.
The personnel resources devoted to consular matters vary considerably, from almost none at the embassy in Astana to several person-years at the embassies in Manila and Bangkok. Altogether the career missions use approximately 150 person-years in assisting Norwegians with consular matters, which accounts for more than 13% of their total personnel resources.
The percentage is considerably higher for many of the honorary consulates. The most important function of many of the consulates is providing assistance to Norwegians, particularly in areas where there are many Norwegian tourists and large colonies of Norwegian residents, such as in Spain and Greece, as well as in Turkey, Brazil, France, Italy and Cyprus.
In April 2010 the Foreign Service Response Centre (UD-OPS) was established at the Foreign Ministry in Oslo. The centre has a staff of 13 and is manned around the clock all year round. The centre generally deals with about 100 inquiries concerning consular matters a day. One of its main tasks is to assist members of the general public abroad, as all inquiries addressed to diplomatic and consular missions outside normal office hours are channelled to the centre. Embassies and consulates can also consult the centre on complex consular matters at any time. This is helping to meet the Storting’s call for greater consistency of consular services between missions. The establishment and operation of the centre have been funded by reallocating funds within the Foreign Ministry’s existing budget. The centre will soon have been operating for one year, and internal evaluations and feedback from members of the public indicate that it has contributed to better and more consistent consular assistance.
A total of 20 people work full time on consular matters in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, a number of people are involved in legal, communication-related and other aspects of consular matters. Including the administrative support functions, it is estimated that the Foreign Service uses some 200 person-years to assist Norwegian citizens abroad.
Boks 2.3 Tasks of an embassy with a heavy consular workload
The embassy in Athens has some 600 Norwegians who are permanently resident in its consular district, which also includes Cyprus. In addition, approximately 360 000 Norwegian tourists visit Greece and Cyprus every year. There are eight honorary consulates in Greece and one honorary consulate-general in Cyprus. The embassy and consulates have a heavy consular workload all year round. They deal with most types of consular matters, the most common being paternity cases, solemnisation of marriage, registration of divorces, deaths, accidents, arrests and detention, various health and social welfare matters, including mental illness, substance abuse and compulsory committal, as well as repatriation, loss of passports and emergency loans. The embassy also deals with inquiries from the Greek police concerning verification of Norwegian travel documents on a regular basis, and provides assistance and advice to Norwegians who are the aggrieved party, a witness or the defendant in a court case.
All individual decisions of the public administration may be appealed in accordance with the Public Administration Act.7 This also applies to decisions relating to consular matters. Some appeals are to be dealt with by the ministry concerned or other competent agency, for example appeals concerning the issuing of passports are to be dealt with by the Police Directorate. Every year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs receives a few dozen complaints concerning consular matters. Most of them are complaints about legislation. Only a few of them concern the treatment of a person in need of assistance. Nonetheless, the Foreign Service takes all complaints seriously, values all constructive feedback, and seeks to apply lessons learned to provide even better consular services in the future.
A small percentage of these inquiries concern allegations of various forms of corruption. There is zero tolerance for corruption in the Foreign Service, and a whistleblowing channel has been established for registering anonymous inquiries and following them up in an appropriate manner.
Requests have occasionally been made for an open hearing in the Storting on the way the Foreign Service has dealt with a specific consular matter. However, on the basis of written information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Standing Committee on Scrutiny and Constitutional Affairs found that there was no need for a hearing in these cases.
The costs connected with consular tasks are covered over the regular operating budgets of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic and consular missions. On several occasions, the Ministry has reallocated personnel and economic resources in connection with particularly demanding consular matters. Substantial economic and personnel resources have been used in special cases, such as that of the two Norwegian citizens who have been sentenced to death in DR Congo. In extraordinary situations, for example in connection with the tsunami in 2004 and the evacuation from Lebanon in 2006, the Storting has allocated extra funds for assisting Norwegians abroad.
Boks 2.4 Honorary consulates
Norway’s aspiration for its own consular service triggered the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905. To begin with, the consulates had close links with Norwegian shipping and dealt with the shipping industry’s need for assistance. They were therefore concentrated in port cities. Dealing with the shipping industry’s needs is still an important part of the workload of many consulates, but the focus is increasingly on assistance to individuals and the Norwegian business sector.
Both tasks and workload vary considerably according to the consulate’s location and the number of Norwegians there. Some consulates in remote locations have very little work in connection with Norwegians in need, whereas others use most of their resources on such tasks.
The honorary consuls perform their duties for Norway and Norwegian citizens without any remuneration from Norway. Only costs in connection with duties performed in their official capacity and, in some cases, office expenses are covered by the Norwegian authorities. An important part of the honorary consulates’ duties and income has been in connection with immigration and passport matters. The work in these areas has been reorganised, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is currently considering how many honorary consulates Norway should have, what tasks they should perform and how they should be financed. Norwegians’ travel habits and need for assistance are important considerations in this assessment.
The need for a consular presence and the type of consular services required will be taken fully into account in the planning of the Foreign Service’s future structure, including the network of career missions and honorary consulates.
Boks 2.5 Lessons learned
A Norwegian citizen became entangled in a legal nightmare in the Philippines and was unable to leave the country. His case became publicly known in 2004 through a series of articles in a Norwegian newspaper. It came to light that the Foreign Service did not have a good enough understanding of or failed to deal with a number of fundamental issues at any early enough stage, and that it failed to ensure adequate transfer of information due to staff rotation. This case has since been used in in-house training in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to improve the Foreign Service’s ability to provide adequate, timely assistance.
Vienna Convention of 24 April 1963 on Consular Relations.
Treaty of Cooperation of 23 March 1962 between Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden.
Act of 3 May 2002 No. 13 relating to the Foreign Service.
Foreign Service Instructions of 13 December 2003, with comments.
According to the legislative history of the Foreign Service Act, the rules are not intended to entitle individual citizens to require that the Foreign Service should intervene in a specific matter. The question whether the Foreign Service is to intervene in a specific matter is subject to the discretion of the public administration.
A diplomatic career mission is an embassy, permanent mission/delegation or other foreign service representation headed by a foreign service officer posted abroad. A consular career mission is a consulate-general or a consulate headed by a career officer. An honorary consular mission is a consulate-general, consulate or vice-consulate headed by an honorary representative. The term “diplomatic or consular mission” is a general term that covers embassies, consulates and missions/delegations.
Act of 10 February 1967 No. 10 relating to procedure in cases concerning the public administration (the Public Administration Act).