Articles - February 2021

Covid-19 Prompts a Break with Royal Tradition:

Queen Elizabeth II Conducts "Virtual" Diplomatic Audiences

Formal diplomatic practice and long-established protocol have had to adapt to the realities of public health requirements, even at the Court of St. James in London.  Traditionally, Queen Elizabeth II has received newly named ambassadors to the United Kingdom in person and in the formal reception rooms in Buckingham Palace.  Not so in 2020.  Instead, the most recent diplomatic audiences have been conducted by computer with the Queen in residence at Windsor Castle and ambassadors presenting their credentials, or letters of credence as they are officially termed, before a computer screen in a remote, private conversation with the Queen.

Despite the introduction of this new technology necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a concerted effort to retain as many elements of tradition as possible.  Each ambassador presented credentials, in formal dress accompanied by the requisite curtsy or bow, on a table above which was placed a computer screen and camera thereby enabling Her Majesty the Queen and each individual ambassador to converse privately and confidentially.  No record of the discussion in a diplomatic audience is made.

The formalities of diplomatic audiences with the monarch have changed little since Victorian times.  Royal protocol extended to the new ambassadors included being collected from their residence or embassy in a State landau, a ceremonial horse-drawn carriage, and driven through the streets of London preceded by a second ceremonial carriage in which rode HM Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps, Alistair Harrison.  Upon arrival at Buckingham Palace, ambassadors were met by the Queen’s Equerry, Major Tom White, and escorted into the palace.

As they entered the state rooms, ambassadors and their guests were formally announced by the Marshall of the Diplomatic Corps.  Despite the technological requirements of this digital audience, all of these historic traditions were observed with only minor modifications.  Video screens and cameras provided the link between Windsor’s Oak Room where Queen Elizabeth is in residence and the Equerry’s Room at Buckingham Palace where diplomatic credentials were presented.

The Queen held several separate diplomatic audiences with Sophie Katsarava, Ambassador of Georgia; Gil da Costa Ambassador of Timor Leste; Ferenc Kumin, Ambassador of Hungary; and Bruno van der Pluijm, Ambassador of Belgium.  Though these formal audiences had been delayed by the exigencies of Covid-19, these ambassadors assumed their posts in London earlier in the year.  This ceremony represented the official presentation to the Queen of the letters credence written by the diplomat’s Head of State assuring Her Majesty that the newly named appointment should be assumed to speak authoritatively on behalf of his or her government.

Prior to being named ambassador, Sophie Katsarava served as a member of the Parliament of Georgia (2016-2019).  During her tenure as an MP she served as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee as well as Chair of the Friendship Group with the United Kingdom and Chair of the Parliamentary Dimension of the Wardrop Strategic dialogue between Georgia and the United Kingdom.  Earlier in her career Katsarava joined the staff of the British Embassy in Tbilisi where she served as Project Manager, Head of Press and Public Relations, and ultimately as Political Secretary.   In 2016, after 11 years at the British Embassy, Katsarava was appointed as Honorary Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to strengthening relations between Georgia and the United Kingdom in the education sector.

Ambassador Gil da Costa of Timor Leste has experience in the areas of management, coordination, and administration with links to international organizations.  Timor Leste, which unilaterally declared its independence in 1975 after which an extended period of conflict ensued, was recognized internationally as an independent state in 2002.  The embassy in London, which also represents Timor Leste in the Netherlands, was opened in 2014.  Ambassador Gil da Costa now serves as his country’s second ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Dr. Ferenc Kumin, Ph.D., was trained as a political scientist but after a foray into teaching and research began his professional career in the Office of the President of Hungary. After another academic interlude he moved on to the Prime Minister’s Office as Deputy Spokesman for the government.  That was followed by a four-year term as Consul General of Hungary in New York that “turned me into a practicing diplomat.”  Prior to being named Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Dr. Kumin served at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest as Deputy State Secretary for the Development of European and American Relations.

Bruno van der Pluijm joined the Belgian Foreign Service in 1991. For the last five years, he has maintained a leadership role as Director-General of the Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid. Between 2018 and 2019, for just over a year, he was also acting Secretary-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade.  Previous to representing Belgium in the UK, he was ambassador to Canada and Tunisia.

In 1987, First Admiral Pengiran Dato Seri Pahlawan Norazmi bin Pengiran Haji Muhammad started his highly accomplished career when he enrolled in the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. Subsequently, he graduated from the Britannia Royal Naval College of the United Kingdom. From 2012 to 2015, he was promoted to Captain and appointed as Deputy Commander of the Royal Brunei Navy. According to his official biography, by the consent of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu'izzadin Waddaulah Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar 'Ali Saifuddien Sa'adul Khairi Waddien, The Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan Of Brunei Darussalam, he was promoted to First Admiral in May of 2015. Although now retired from the Navy, he currently serves in the diplomatic corps. On December 18, 2020, the former first admiral took office as the newest ambassador of Brunei Darussalam to the United Kingdom.

This distinguished group of ambassadors now holds an unusual and, with the advent of effective Covid-19 vaccines, perhaps a rare distinction.  They are the first group of Ambassadors to the United Kingdom to have met with the Queen in person . . . on screen.  It is unlikely this will be the future of diplomatic audiences with the British monarch, but it is certain that the capabilities of videoconferencing have simultaneously rescued the work of diplomacy from the limitations of social distancing and quarantine and changed the tools of diplomacy forever.

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