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The word plenipotentiary (from the Latin, plenus + potens, full + power) has two meanings. As a noun, it refers to a person who has "full powers". In particular, the term commonly refers to a diplomat fully authorized to represent a government as a prerogative (e.g., ambassador). As an adjective, plenipotentiary refers to something—an edict, assignment, etc.—that confers "full powers".
Before the era of rapid international transport or essentially instantaneous communication (such as telegraph in the mid-19th century and then radio), diplomatic mission chiefs were granted full (plenipotentiary) powers to represent their government in negotiations with their host nation. Conventionally, any representations made or agreements reached with a plenipotentiary would be recognized and complied with by their government.
Historically, the common generic term for high diplomats of the crown or state was minister. It therefore became customary to style the chiefs of full ranking missions as Minister Plenipotentiary. This position was roughly equivalent to the modern Ambassador, a term that historically was reserved mainly for missions between the great powers and also relating to the dogal (city) state of Venice.
Permanent missions at a bilateral level were chiefly limited to relations between large, neighboring or closely allied powers, rarely to the very numerous small principalities, hardly worth the expense. However, diplomatic missions were dispatched for specific tasks, such as negotiating a treaty bilaterally, or via a conference, such as the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. In such cases, it was normal to send a representative minister empowered to cast votes. For example, in the Peace Treaty of Versailles (1783), ending the American Revolution, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay were named "minister plenipotentiary of the United States" to the Netherlands, France and Spain, respectively.
By the time of the Vienna Congress (1814–15), which codified diplomatic relations, Ambassador had become a common title, and was established as the only class above Minister Plenipotentiary. Ambassadors gradually became the standard title for bilateral mission chiefs, as their ranks no longer tended to reflect the importance of the states, which came to be treated as formally equal.
In modern times, heads of state and of government, and more junior ministers and officials, can easily meet or speak with each other personally. Therefore, ambassadors arguably do not require plenipotentiary powers. However they continue to be designated and accredited as extraordinary and plenipotentiary.
Outside of diplomatic plenipotentiaries, some permanent administrators are also given plenipotentiary powers. Central governments have sometimes conferred plenipotentiary status (either formally or de facto) on territorial governors. This has been most likely to occur when the remoteness of the administered territory made it impracticable for the central government to maintain and exercise its policies, laws and initiatives directly.
There have been instances where a mandate was conferred publicly on a senior official, such as a minor member of the ruling house (sometimes with the title of viceroy) but with secret instructions drastically limiting the position's power by conferring plenipotentiary status on a more junior administrator, possibly of lower social class or caste. Thus, the formal position an individual holds has not always been a reliable indicator of actual plenipotentiary authority.
Even in modern times, the Plenipotentiary title has been revived sometimes, for example for the administrators of protectorates or in other cases of indirect rule.
Examples of plenipotentiary administration are given below.
- In 1879 - 1884, the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (b. 1841 - d. 1904) was styled Plenipotentiary of the Committee for the Studies of Upper Congo (CEHC) (from 1882, renamed International Association of the Congo [AIC], a front for the ambitions of Belgian King Leopold II, not supported by the Belgian government) in Equatorial Africa, while military command lay with four consecutive Commandants of the (leading) station at Karema; on 22 April 1884 the International Association of the Congo became the independent Congo Free State, under regular authorities (headed, strictly personal, by Belgian king Leopold II), at first styled Administrator-general.
Pre-World War II Europe
- On the Greek island of Crete, after the President of the Executive Commission of the Cretan Assembly, Ioannis Sfakianakis (b. 1848 - d. 1924), had exercised executive power 20 March - 21 December 1898 after evicting the last Ottoman Wāli (Ottoman governor), a Supreme Plenipotentiary Commissioner of the (Christian protecting) Powers headed the official administration of the 20 March 1898 instituted Cretan State (formally under Ottoman suzerainty until union with Greece was unilaterally declared on 6 October 1908):
- 21 December 1898 - 30 September 1906 Prince George of Greece (b. 1869 - d. 1959)
- 1 October 1906 - 30 September 1911 Alexandros Zaimis (b. 1855 - d. 1936); then, 30 September 1911 - 30 May 1913, the post remained vacant but was not abolished until the island was officially incorporated into the Kingdom of Greece in December 1913.
- During the Russian Civil War, Karl Lander was named Plenipotentiary of the Northern Caucasus and the Don by the Soviet government to exercise this power for prosecution of rebellious Cossacks.
- In Slovakia, 15 January 1927 - 28 June 1928 Jozef Kállay (b. 1881 - d. 1939) was Minister Plenipotentiary and Administrator of the Czechoslovak government
- In Ireland, October 1921 Éamon de Valera gave Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Robert Barton positions of plenipotentiary to negotiate a treaty with Britain.
- in Slovakia, July 1939 - 4 April 1945, three consecutive German Envoys and Ministers Plenipotentiary (the old diplomatic style) formally represented the Reich in the fascist puppet state (14 March 1939 - 3 April 1945) of Jozef Tiso (b. 1887 - d. 1947; former Czechoslovak Ministers for Slovak Affairs 6 October - 28 November 1938) HSLS (acting to 26 October 1939; from 1942 self-styled Vodca "Leader", a typical extreme right nationalist Führer-imitation)
- in the occupied Netherlands, the Dutch being a Germanic people, under a Reichskommissar ("Reich Commissioner"), German Plenipotentiaries were appointed during 1940-45 at the provincial level by the side of the regular Dutch Provincial Commissioners in Drenthe, Friesland (Frisia, i.e. west and south of Germany's own East Frisia), Gelderland, Groningen, Limburg, North Holland, Overijssel, Utrecht and South Holland, and during 1940-1944 in North Brabant and Zeeland .
- in Denmark, another Germanic country under Nazi-German occupation (9 April 1940 - 5 May 1945), initially a German protectorate was established, led by a Reichsbevollmächtigter ("Reich Plenipotentiary"). On 29 August 1943, the German Nazis took over direct administration under military commander Hermann von Hanneken after declaring a state of military emergency.
- in mid 1944, Joseph Goebbels was named Reich Plenipotentiary for Total War on the home front (Reichsbevollmächtigter für den totalen Kriegseinsatz an der Heimatfront), as other Nazi personalities earned Plenipotentiary titles inside the Reich's government. Heinrich Himmler held the title of Generalbevollmächtigter für die Verwaltung or general plenipotentiary for the entire Reich's administration. His aide, Walter Schellenberg, held the title of Sonderbevollmächtigter or special plenipotentiary to Himmler. Granting absolute power over a particular or general governmental matter to a single individual was a pervasive practice among the top Nazis.
- the German de facto military takeover of Italy, its major European Axis-ally, after Mussolini's military and political collapse (he was pro forma restyled Provisional Head of State and Prime minister of the "Italian Social Republic", i.e. the fascist Counter Government at Salò) was headed 12 September 1943 - 28 April 1945 by a German Plenipotentiary: Rudolf Rahn (b. 1900 - d. 1975); there were separate military commanders.
It may be impractical to hold a new referendum for each step of series of negotiated changes, and thus ministers might ask an electorate for plenipotentiary powers in advance, as in the South African apartheid referendum, 1992. Prior to the referendum, the state president F. W. de Klerk had already implemented extensive reforms e.g. removing the Group Areas Act. However, his right to negotiate these reforms was questioned by other parties e.g. Andries Treurnicht's Conservative Party, particularly in response to the National Party's Potchefstroom by-election defeat in February 1992. Given how heavily entrenched apartheid was in the South African legal system at the time, Mr. de Klerk needed to nullify many previous bills and pass many new ones, making a series of individual referenda impractical. Consequently, as a practical solution to the political deadlock, Mr. de Klerk held a referendum on 17 March 1992 to ask the white South African electorate to give him plenipotentiary powers.
On May 18, 2000, in the post-Soviet Russian Federation the title Plenipotentiary of the President was established for the appointees of the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in each of the seven federal districts created on May 13: Dalnevostochny (Far Eastern), Privolzhsky (Volga Region), Severo-Zapadny (North Western), Sibirsky (Siberian), Tsentralny (Central), Uralsky (Ural) and Yuzhny (Southern).
This word has been voted as one of the ten English words that are hardest to translate in June 2004 by Today Translations, a British translation company. However, almost the exact word exists in at least some of the Romance languages (such as Portuguese - plenipotenciário; French - plénipotentiaire; Romanian - plenipotenţiar; Spanish - plenipotenciario; Italian - plenipotenziario), with exactly the same meaning; the Albanian word i/e plotfuqishëm sounds similar, although it has native roots; other languages have their own equivalents (for instance, German - Bevollmächtigt(er) (adjective or noun), Dutch Gevolmachtigd(e), Swedish fullmäktig, Norwegian fullmektig - all these Germanic cases are literal parallels; Serbian punomoćan (пуномоћан in Cyrillic), Russian полномочный (полный=full, мочь=to be in power, to be able), Czech zplnomocněný (plno=full, moc=power), Slovak splnomocnený (plno=full, moc=power), Polish pełnomocnik (pełno=of full, moc=power), Bulgarian пълномощен (pǎlnomošten), Finnish täysivaltainen, Greek πληρεξούσιος, plērexoúsios, Turkish tam yetkili, and Tatar wäqälätle.