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The ancient ritual keeping diplomacy alive

Letters of Credentials, also known as Credentials Letters, are one of the most ancient tools of diplomacy, and their delivery to the Head of State marks the official beginning of the posting of a specific Ambassador to a specific country – which, in turn, determines what position that Ambassador will occupy in official ceremonies. 

First, though, a little history. Figures akin to a modern day ambassador can be found in documents that date all the way back to Ancient Greece, with a major change happening between the 1300s and the 1500s, starting in the territory that constitutes modern day Italy. 

However, it is with the Vienna Congress ratification that the figure of ambassador was created as we know it today, with its different rankings and the establishment of neutral criteria for their order of precedence. 

The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations further established that diplomatic envoys should benefit from diplomatic immunity, meaning that they couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes committed during the tenure of their office and that their duties include the protection of citizens living in that country, the promotion of prosperity and a tireless work towards peace. 

Ambassadors serve in their posts at the will of the Heads of State, and their selection is very rigorous. The Head of State will look at a list of available ambassadors, and, taking into consideration their specialties, their areas of expertise, and their language skills, as well as previous postings and accomplishments, select the person believed to be the best fit for the vacant posting. 

The candidate’s profile is then sent to the government of the nation that will welcome the ambassador, generally as a courtesy so that they can approve the candidature. However, there have been cases, even in recent history, of receiving governments giving a negative response. 

Once the candidate is approved, the Head of State of the sending government creates a Letter of Credentials, which is based on a widely-used model, in three copies: one remains with the sending government, one travels with the appointed ambassador and one is sent as a courtesy to the receiving government. 

Once the appointed ambassador arrives in the country that they are assigned to, their first act is to plan for the delivery of his Letters of Credentials to the Head of State of the receiving country. 

Generally, this procedure is carried out by multiple newly arrived ambassadors in the same day; the order in which they present their Letters of Credentials will determine their order of precedence. 

Technically, the adopted method is by time spent in the role; therefore, the ambassadors that arrived earlier will precede the arriving later. However, this order does not take into consideration the time of arrival in the country, but rather the exact time at which the Credentials Letters are handed to the receiving Head of State. 

At the end of this passage, there will be a private meeting between the incoming ambassador and the Head of State, the duration of which is variable, depending on the ties that bind the two countries, and the global situation at that specific time.

But why does it have to be the Head of State that officially receives the Letters of Credentials? That is because, in their role, the incoming ambassador represents the Head of State of the country that sent them, and, by proxy, the whole of their nation. It is thus considered a sign of respect for a Head of State to finalise the appointment process of any newly welcome ambassador. 

Contrary to other ceremonies, which see an increasing difference between Monarchies and Republics, the official acts for presenting Credentials Letters to the welcoming Head of State maintains the same level of formality throughout the world; that is because of another principle of protocol, called “reciprocity” – meaning that people in the same role should be treated in the same way. 

In conclusion, it is up to the Monarch to receive Letters of Credentials from the hands of the incoming ambassador; not only does this represent a symbol of that country being welcome to keep up diplomatic ties with the receiving nation, but it also gives the Sovereign an opportunity to hold a conversation with the new ambassador on a wide range of topics. 

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