The role of diplomatic attachés
1. Among the oldest positions in the Foreign Service are those of the diplomatic attachés whose functions are more specific and somewhat less well known. (Attaché is a French term in diplomacy referring to a person who is assigned (“attached”) to the diplomatic or administrative staff of a higher placed person or another service or agency. Depending on custom, “’attaché” may be modified to correspond to the gender (i.e., “attaché”).
2. These officials in some countries can be classified according to their specialty, such as economic, press, cultural, tourist, commercial, financial, agricultural, defence (military) and labour.
3. Those who hold positions as diplomatic attachés in the embassies usually possess technical skills in specific areas related to their diplomatic functions.
4. Some countries use this attaché category for their career diplomats at the preliminary stage, generally on probation prior to their appointment as third secretaries. In some Latin American countries, they are also referred to as “aggregates.” Most countries still retain the French language term (attachés) to describe the lower level diplomats within their foreign service.
5. Further, certain nations designate some officials to the category of attaché without specifying a specialisation of functions. This is because some administrative officials require special protection as diplomatic agents whose real function is not desired to be publicly known.
6. In cases where countries draft into their foreign service known experts in specialised areas, they usually name them to the rank of “advisers” to give them higher status than that of the attachés. Such persons may include commercial and cultural “advisers”.
7. Three categories of attachés of particular importance are those responsible for economic, defence (military), and labour.
8. Economic attachés, depending on the size of a country’s embassy and the economic power of the country to which it is accredited, deal with specific economic or trade matters, and sometimes with financial issues if no other officials who are given responsibility for such functions.
9. Economic attachés may be specified as economic, commercial or financial, and, overall, their functions are to provide information, assistance and advice.
10. With regard to the defence (military) attachés, they have characteristics that are not generally applicable to other attachés. Usually, military attachés from countries which are regarded as regional military powers are highly respected by the host States. But with respect to diplomatic duties, they are not usually accredited as a charge d’affaires ad interim.
11. For some countries, as determined by diplomatic ceremonial protocol, a defence attaché having the rank of brigadier-general is placed after the Head of Mission. If the rank is that of colonel or lieutenant-colonel, the attaché will be placed after the embassy counsellors. In the rank is lower, the attaché will be placed after the embassy secretaries.
12. The military attachés can be selected or recommended by their respective chiefs of staffs, or by relevant ministries. However, when they are posted to an Embassy, they are subject to the authority of the Chief of the Diplomatic Mission to which they are assigned.
13. With regard to the labour attachés, these have been particularly relevant when the two countries (sending and receiving) have historically a significant level of migrants from each other, or from one to the other. Unlike previous times, these officials today are not authorised to recruit migrant workers.
14. At present, due to austerity measures applied by governments, the specialised “boundaries” or “duties” of attachés become blurred and tend to overlap since the Head of Mission may ascribe to them other responsibilities and certain tasks from time to time.
© Odeen Ishmael, 2012