Consul (representative)

Consul (representative)

The political title Consul is used for the official representatives of the government of one state in the territory of another, normally acting to assist and protect the citizens of the consul's own country, and to facilitate trade and friendship between the peoples of the two countries. A consul is distinguished from an ambassador, the latter being a representative from one head of state to another. There can be but one ambassador of one country to another, representing the first country's head of state to that of the second, and his or her duties revolve around diplomatic relations between the two countries; however, there may be several consuls, one in each of several main cities, providing assistance with bureaucratic issues to both the citizens of the consul's own country travelling or living abroad and to the citizens of the country the consul resides in who wish to travel to or trade with the consul's country.


Antecedent: the Classical Greek Proxenos

In Classical Greece, some of the functions of the modern Consul were fulfilled by a Proxenos. Unlike the modern position, this was a citizen of the host man (city state), usually a rich merchant, who had friendship and/or socio-economic ties with another city, and voluntarily helped its lame citizens when in trouble in his own city. The position of Proxenos was often hereditary in a particular family. Modern Honorary Consuls fulfil a function that is to a degree similar to that of the Ancient Greek institution.

Historical development of the term

Consuls were the highest magistrates of the Roman Republic. The term was revived by the city-state of Genoa which, unlike Rome, bestowed it on various state officials, not necessarily restricted to the highest. Among these were Genoese officials stationed in various Mediterranean ports, whose role included duties similar to those of the modern consul, i.e. helping Genoese merchants and sailors in difficulties with the local authorities.

The Consolat de mar was an institution established under the reign of Peter IV of Aragon in the fourteenth century, and which spread to 47 locations throughout the Mediterranean.[1] It was primarily a judicial body, administering maritime and commercial law as Lex Mercatoria. Although the Consolat de mar was established by the Corts General (parliament) of the Crown of Aragon, the consuls were independent from the King. This distinction between consular and diplomatic functions remains (at least formally) to this day. Modern consuls retain limited judicial powers to settle disputes on ships from their country (notably regarding the payment of wages to sailors).

The Consulado de mercaderes was set up in 1543 in Seville as a merchant guild to control trade with Latin America. As such, it had branches in the principal cities of the Spanish colonies.

The connection of "consul" with trade and commercial law is retained in French, where a juge consulaire (consular judge) is a non-professional judge elected by the chamber of commerce to settle commercial disputes in the first instance (sitting in panels of three in France, or in conjunction with a professional magistrate in Belgium).

Consulates and embassies

Consulate of Kazakhstan in Omsk, Russia
Consulate of Belgium in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Consulate of Portugal in Mindelo, Cape Verde.

The office of a Consul is termed a Consulate, and is usually subordinate to the state's main representation in that foreign country, usually an Embassy, or High Commission between Commonwealth countries, in the capital city of the host state. Like the term embassy, the word consulate may refer not only to the office of consul, but also to the building occupied by the consul and his or her staff. In capital cities, the consulate may share the premises with the embassy itself.

A consul of higher rank is termed a consul-general, and his or her office a consulate-general. He or she typically has one or several Deputy Consuls-General, Consuls, Vice-Consuls and Consular Agents working under the consul-general. Consulates-general need not have their offices in the capital city, but rather could have then in the most important/appropriate cities in terms of bilateral relations (commerce, travel, etc.). In the United States, for example, most countries have a consulate-general in New York City (the home of the United Nations), and some have consulates-general in several major cities (e.g., Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, Houston, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans). The same is the case for other large countries like Germany - where many consulates-general are located in cities such as Bonn, Frankfurt, and Munich, the Russian Federation - where many consulates-general are located in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, etc., Canada - where many consulates-general are located in Toronto and Vancouver, Brazil - where many consulates-general are located in Rio de Janerio and Sao Paulo, and Australia - where many consulates-general are located in Sydney and Melbourne.

Consuls of various ranks may have specific legal authority for certain activities, such as notarizing documents. As such, diplomatic personnel with other responsibilities may receive consular letters patent (commissions). Aside from those outlined in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, there are few formal requirements outlining what a consular official must do. For example, for some countries, consular officials may be responsible for the issuance of visas; other countries may limit "consular services" to providing assistance to compatriots, legalization of documents, etc. Nonetheless, consulates proper will be headed by consuls of various ranks, even if such officials have little or no connection with the more limited sense of consular service.

Contrary to popular belief, although many of the staff of consulates may be career diplomats they do not generally have diplomatic immunity (unless they are also accredited as such). Immunities and privileges for consuls and accredited staff of consulates (consular immunity) are generally limited to actions undertaken in their official capacity and, with respect to the consulate itself, to those required for official duties. In practice, the extension and application of consular privileges and immunities can be subject to wide discrepancies from country to country.

Consulates are more numerous than diplomatic missions (e.g., embassies), since the latter are posted only in a foreign nation's capital (exceptionally even outside the country, in case of a multiple mandate; e.g., a minor power may well accredit a single Ambassador with several neighbouring states of modest relative importance that are not considered important allies), while consular ones are also posted in various cities throughout the country, especially centres of economic activity, or wherever there is a significant population of its citizens (expatriates) in residence.

Consulates are subordinate posts of their home country's diplomatic mission (typically an embassy, in the capital city of the host country). Diplomatic missions are established in international law under the Vienna Conventions, while consulates-general and consulates are established in international law under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Formally, at least within the US system, the consular career (ranking in descending order: Consul-General, Consul, Vice-Consul, Honorary Consul) forms a different hierarchy from the diplomats in the strict sense. However, it is common for individuals to be transferred from one hierarchy to the other, and for consular officials to serve in a capital carrying out strictly consular duties within the consular section of a diplomatic post; e.g., within an embassy.

Activities of a consulate include protecting the interests of their citizens temporarily or permanently resident in the host country, issuing passports; issuing visas to foreigners and public diplomacy. However, the principal role of a consulate lies traditionally in promoting trade—assisting companies to invest and to import and export goods and services both inwardly to their home country and outward to their host country. And although it is never admitted publicly, consulates, like embassies, may also gather intelligence information from the assigned country.

Between Commonwealth countries, both diplomatic and consular activities may be undertaken by a High Commission in the capital, although larger Commonwealth nations generally also have consulates and consulates-general in major cities. For example, Toronto in Canada, Sydney in Australia and Auckland, New Zealand, are of greater economic importance than their respective national capitals, hence the need for consulates there.

In British colonies, most notably Hong Kong before the transfer of its sovereignty to the People's Republic of China in 1997, senior envoys from Commonwealth states in these missions are usually known as Commissioners. (All previous Commissioners in Hong Kong are now styled Consuls-General.)

Consul general

A consul general is a consular officer who heads a consulate general and is a consul of the highest rank serving at a principal location. A consul general may also be responsible for other, subordinate consular offices within a country. The consul general serves as a representative who speaks on behalf of his or her state in the country to which he or she is located. It is abbreviated "CG" and the plural form is consuls general. In most embassies, the consular section is headed by a consul general who is also a member of the ambassador's country team.

Honorary consul

Home of Poland's honorary consul in Jerusalem

Some consuls are not career officials of the represented state at all; some are locally-engaged staff with the nationality of the sending country,[2] and in smaller cities, or in cities that are very distant from full-time diplomatic missions, a foreign government which feels that some form of representation is nevertheless desirable may appoint a person who has not hitherto been part of their diplomatic service to fulfill this role. Such a consul may well combine the job with his or her own (often commercial) private activities, and in some instances may not even be a citizen of the sending country. Such consular appointments are usually given the title of honorary consul. Graham Greene used this position as the title of his 1973 novel The Honorary Consul.

Notwithstanding their other roles, Honorary Consular Officers (in the widest use of the term) also have responsibility for the welfare of citizens of the appointing country within their bailiwick.[citation needed] Thus, particularly within a port town, an Honorary Consul may be called out (at any time, day or night) to attend to the well-being of a citizen of the appointing country who has been arrested. Their role in this situation is to ensure that the arrested persons are treated in a like manner as would be the citizen of the country in which this person was arrested, and understand their rights & obligations.

Historical role in Lübeck

In the social life of 19th century Lübeck as depicted in Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks - based on Mann's thorough personal knowledge of his own birth milieu - an appointment as the Consul of a foreign country was a source of considerable social prestige among the city's merchant elite. As depicted in the book, the position of a Consul for a particular country was in practice hereditary in a specific family, whose mansion bore the represented country's coat of arms, and with that country confirming the Consul's son or other heir in the position on the death of the previous Consul. As repeatedly referenced by Mann, Consul's wife was known as "Consulin" and continued to bear that title even on the death of her husband. Characters in the book are mentioned as Consuls for Denmark, The Netherlands and Portugal.

Colonial and similar roles

Under certain historical circumstances, a major power's consular representation would take on various degrees of administrative roles, not unlike a colonial Resident Minister. This would often occur in territories without a formal state government (thus warranting a full diplomatic mission, such as an embassy) or in relatively insignificant "backwaters."


When a state falls under the "amical" protection of a stronger (often colonial) power, the latter is usually represented by a high ranking diplomatic and/or gubernatorial officer, such as a Resident general, Resident Minister or High Commissioner. However, if there is no such representation (in modern terms often at ambassadorial level), the task may fall to the only available "diplomatic" alternative: consular representation.

  • in the German West African Kamerun, 6 July 1884–26 June 1885, provisional consul Heinrich Randad filled the void between the first Reichskommissar (titled—for West Africa, 5–6 July 1884 only) and the subsequent series of regular incumbents
  • In parts of present Nigeria, British Consuls were in charge of the following West African protectorates:
    • the Bight of Benin May 1852–6 August 1861
    • the Bight of Biafra 30 June 1849–6 August 1861
    • the Bights of Biafra and Benin since the merger of the two above on 6 August 1861; the last incumbent was promoted on 5 June 1885 to stay on as first Consul general (of two) of the Bights
  • From 7 November 1889, Samoa, previously a Polynesian kingdom, was governed by the joint German-British-U.S. Samoa Tripartite Convention, which made Samoa a protectorate of those three powers. On 10 June 1899, a provisional (colonial) government sui generis was formed, consisting of the consuls of the three protecting powers:
    • Friedrich Rose (German Consul) (b. 1855–d. 1922)
    • Ernest George Berkeley Maxse (British Consul) (b. 1863–d. 1943): to 23 June 1899, succeeded by a Mister Nair (acting British consul)
    • Luther Wood Osborn (U.S. Consul) (b. 1843–d. 1901).

This arrangement lasted until 1 March 1900, when the archipelago was annexed by imperial Germany, with the exception of the eastern islands, which remained under U.S. control and became the territory of American Samoa).

  • On Tonga, a British protectorate since 1900, the British Empire was only represented by its consuls from 1901 until Tongan independence in 1970. From 1901 until 1952, the protectorate was also under the administrative authority of the High Commissioner of the British Western Pacific Territories (always the British Governor of Fiji).

Occupied territories under similar control

  • In the Suez Canal Zone, even before it was officially established under that name in 1936 (from then on with a formal Governor in charge), the British were represented since 1922 by Vice Consuls in Port Suez, the last of which stayed on in 1941 as first of several Consuls till the 1956 Egyptian nationalisation.
  • From December 1941 to August 1945, Japanese troops invaded the Portuguese colony of Macau several times, giving the Japanese control over the access of people and goods. This made it by 1943 a virtual protectorate, with Japanese consul Fukui Yasumitsu controlling all contact until 1945 with the Portuguese governor, Gabriel Maurício Teixeira.

Similar functions have been performed elsewhere by consular officers of other ranks: Consular Agent, Honorary Consul and Consul general.

U.S. military personnel

Certain U.S. military personnel also have statutory authority to act as consuls for military administration purposes,[3] more broadly for military personnel and dependents,[4] and for merchant seamen in a port lacking an accredited U.S. consul.[5] In order to perform their functions to the best of their ability, Honorary (Vice) Consuls (General) are afforded by their commissioning countries a military-equivalent rank. Thus Honorary Consular Officers rank immediately after Naval Lieutenants/Captains/Flight Lieutenants, Honorary Vice Consuls after Lieutenant Commanders/Majors/Squadron Leaders, Honorary Consuls after Naval Captains/Colonels/Group Captains & Honorary Consuls General after Rear Admirals/Major Generals/Air Vice Marshals. This is done in order to "cut to the chase", i.e. in a sensitive situation to get the Consul (of whatever rank) to someone with whom he/she can negotiate with confidence.

Concessions and extraterritoriality

Even within another state, a foreign power often has extraterritorial rights over its official representation (such as a consulate). If such concessions are obtained, they are often justified as protection of the foreign religion (especially in the case of Christians in a Muslim state) such as the ahdname or capitulations granted by the Ottoman Sultan to commercial Diasporas residing in the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan did not see this agreement as a bilateral agreement between equals, but merely as acknowledging the nation of foreigners living within his territory and offering them privileges similar to those given to non-Ottoman subjects. However, the European states viewed the ahdname as formal and official and therefore had difficulty enforcing the privileges to their satisfaction on many occasions.[6]

A few examples:

  • In 1261, the Genoese assisted Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palæologus in reconquering Constantinople and were rewarded with Smyrna and Pera as well as a Black Sea trade monopoly. They rapidly developed markets along the Black Sea's shores, the principal one being Caffa, and carried on a brisk trade, exporting mainly wine, oil, woolens and silks, and importing skins, furs, corn and Persian goods. A consulate general of the empire of Gazaria was established as the local government of these colonies. Some Genoese moved to Caffa where they remained a minority, but were able to govern the city to suit their interests because of the presence of the Genoese consul. The Genoese also had a consular presence in Chilia as early as 1322 where the consul served the interests of the merchants trading grain, honey, and other goods. Chilia and Caffa are examples of places where a wide variety of merchants came to trade and where consuls would have been used.[7] The Genoese had a consul in Alexandria “who was empowered to settle disputes brought by a Saracen against a Genoese” after the agreement between Genoa and Mamluk in 1290.[8]
  • In 1453 Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to Constantinople thus ending the Byzantine Empire. However, the Genoese merchants of Galata declared their neutrality before the battle and Mehmed II restored the trading rights to the merchants through an ahidname after capturing the city. Mehmed II “[left] intact the Genoese community council of Pera, grant[ed] the district legal and some political autonomy, exempt[ed] its Genoese inhabitants from all extraordinary taxes and forced conversion, and concede[d] its alien residents the freedom to trade and travel in the Ottoman domains.”[9] This is not unprecedented, but was probably one of the most important examples of the ahdname being granted.[10]
  • In 1855, Sir John Bowring signed a new treaty whereby Siam agreed to the appointment of a British consul in Bangkok and to that official exercising full extraterritorial powers. British subjects were permitted to own land in certain defined districts, customs and port dues and land revenues were fixed, and many new trade facilities were granted. This important arrangement was followed at intervals by similar treaties with the other powers, the last two being those with Japan in 1898 and Russia in 1899. A later convention established a second British consular district in northern Siam, while Britain and France both appointed vice-consuls in different parts of the country. Thus Westerners in Siam (the Chinese had no consul) could only be tried for criminal offences, or sued in civil cases, in their own consular courts. A large portion of the work of the foreign Consuls, especially the British, was consequently judicial and in 1901 the British government appointed a special judge and an assistant judge to this post. Meanwhile, trade steadily increased, especially with Great Britain and the British neighbouring colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore.

In other cases a part of a weaker state is complete handed over (without the formal surrender of "naked" sovereignty) to be administered as a concession, including the indigenous local population:

In the small Italian concession in Tientsin (a treaty port, now Tianjin), the Consul was in charge of the entire local administration. A long list of French consuls-general in Shanghai served as both overseers of the French concession in this Chinese port as well as presidents of the metropolis's Municipal Council. This arrangement lasted from January 1848 until 15 May 1946 (shortly after the 28 February formal restoration of power from France to China).

History of European consuls in the Ottoman Empire

The European consuls in the Ottoman Empire began as informal relationships between merchants residing in the Empire and the Sultan. The relationships were defined by the ahdname granted by the Sultan which would stipulate the religious freedom and exemption from the taxes that non-Muslim subjects had to pay. The religious implications of these relationships diminished over time as the commercial aspects took over.[11]

The Italian city states initially appointed resident ambassadors to other Italian states to create some peace between the conflicting powers. From the twelfth-century onward the merchants from the Italian city states would organize and select a consul to represent them in the Ottoman Empire, but soon after these consuls were more formally chosen by the government. By the fifteenth-century other Western European nations adopted similar practices and diplomacy has been characterized as a Western European phenomenon ever since.[12] Another cause of the consular phenomena was the military hardening of borders which meant that Europeans could not infiltrate another area by force so they relied on economic and commercial ties to gain entry.[13] In the early stages of these consular relationships the Ottomans' did not reciprocate in sending consuls to European capitals, partly because European Christians were less welcoming towards Muslims than Muslims were towards Christians.[14]

The consuls and the trading communities, of which they were in charge, had wide implications for European-Ottoman relationships. Since consuls and merchants would remain in Istanbul (and other Ottoman cities) for longer periods of time, they would return home with a more accurate depiction of the Ottoman culture than the earlier negative depiction. Reporting home with political news was one of the consul’s primary responsibilities which also helped in re-shaping the opinions of the Ottoman’s held by Europeans. A new respect–not necessarily for Ottoman people, but for the Ottoman accomplishments—eventually broke the old barriers and Ottomans appointed representatives to European states.[15]

Venetian consuls

The Venetians appointed principal consuls to important commercial centers like Aleppo and Alexandria because this was where there was a large nation of their merchants. They also appointed vice-consuls to less important areas where they had less commercial interest. The principal consuls were in contact with their home country’s authorities, while the vice-consuls had a more informal position. The consuls were Venetian nobility and appointed on a three year contract which for the most part was strongly adhered to. Also, it was important that they did not have commercial interests or have ties to the merchant community in the area to which they were appointed, but frequently that was not observed in practice. The consuls would have a fixed salary and no other means of income. The Venetian consul would have a council of twelve to assist him and would be responsible for approving all expenditures of the nation’s treasury. Also in the event of the consuls death, the council would appoint a vice-consul until a new consul could be sent from Venice.[16] Through the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries the Venetians practiced a policy of neutrality which was only possible through their strong diplomatic corps—chiefly the bailo (who acted as consul and ambassador). The bailo needed personal skills that would allow him to be-friend high ranking Ottoman officials in order to ensure Venetian interests.[17] One of the main tasks of the bailo was to collect information on the Ottomans’ politics and social life and report back to the Venetian senate regularly. Second in importance was his consular role of promoting and protecting Venetian interests.[18] The bailo was in charge of all Venetians in the Ottoman territory, but he would appoint consuls and vice consuls where he thought it was necessary.[19]

French consuls

The French appear to have kept most intact the medieval tradition of the consul—a representative of the nation of merchants.[20] When the state assumed control of the consuls in the later sixteenth century they diminished the privileges of the nation of merchants. The primary function became financial. However, the state then lost control again over the consuls and the position became a personal one that could be succeeded by an heir.[21] The French consuls did not have fixed incomes like the Venetians, which caused them to "farm" the position out to someone able to pay a higher price for it. This meant that the nation of merchants was potentially represented by someone who was unqualified. The consul had no legal right to collect supplementary taxes. However a voluntary agreement could be reached, but if one member of the French nation refused to pay or lodged a complaint against the consul it would sabotage the agreement.[22] The French had success in the Ottoman Empire notably through their political and diplomatic initiatives rather than their commercial ones. The consuls were responsible for promoting French trade in the Levant through persuasion (gifts, donations, favours etc..)[23] The French consuls were not allowed to participate in trade and commerce themselves, but they were to report political and economic information back to the French government.[24] However, the consulate was frequently headed by corrupt consuls and many of them did engage in commerce.[25]

Dutch consuls

Before the Dutch had their own consuls in the Levant, they traded under the French Capitulations of 1569 until they sent Cornelius Haga as a Consul to Istanbul in 1611.[26] The States-General was responsible for appointing the consul, but the Levant merchants in these cases were closely consulted. The poor payment system for the consuls disrupted the potential successes of the relationship between consul and merchant community. The merchants requested changing to the Venetian fixed salary payment, but the States-General went against their wishes and tried to find other means of income.[27] This posed problems for the Dutch consuls, and there are many reports of cases where consuls exerted their authority over the nations members who did not want to pay consulate and embassy dues.[28] Despite internal struggle within the Dutch nation, it had a good relationship with the Ottomans and in 1804 Sultan Selin III (1789–1807) appointed the first resident representative to Amsterdam.[16]

English consuls

The English consuls were appointed by and affiliated with the Levant Company. The consuls were not in any way a representative for the crown, but merely representing the interests of the Company. It is interesting that if any issues arose with the Ottoman officials, the nation of merchants would meet with the consul to reach a decision on what to do and the company would never interfere in the decisions of the nation.[29] It was not until 1605 that the Company gained the formal right to appoint consuls and vice consuls which were solely concerned with the nation of merchants who were members of the Company. If a consul was absent or died the vice consul would remain in charge until a new consul could be sent. England had the simplest hierarchy when it came to consular representation because the Company was in charge of the nation and consuls below, whereas the crown used other representation abroad.[30]

See also


  1. ^ "Consulados de Barcelona". La Vanguardia. 7 November 2008. 
  2. ^ See Chapter 1, Section 1, Article 22 of convention
  3. ^ Title 10 U.S.C. § 936
  4. ^ Title 10 U.S.C. § 1044a
  5. ^ Title 10 U.S.C. § 5948
  6. ^ Goffman & Aksan 2007, p. 65
  7. ^ Epstein 2006, pp. 56–57
  8. ^ Epstein 2006, p. 116
  9. ^ Goffman & Aksan 2007, p. 68
  10. ^
  11. ^ Goffman & Aksan 2007, p. 63
  12. ^ Mattingly 1963, pp. 64–67
  13. ^ Goffman 2002, p. 144
  14. ^ Steensgaard 1967
  15. ^ Goffman 2002, pp. 228–229
  16. ^ a b Steensgaard 1967, p. 25
  17. ^ Dursteler 2001, p. 2
  18. ^ Dursteler 2001
  19. ^ Dursteler 2001, p. 5
  20. ^ Steensgaard 1967, p. 26
  21. ^ Steensgaard 1967, p. 27
  22. ^ Eldem 1999, p. 265
  23. ^ Eldem 1999, p. 67
  24. ^ Brewer 2002, pp. 98–99
  25. ^ Brewer 2002, p. 98
  26. ^ De Groot 1978, pp. 88, 97
  27. ^ Steensgaard 1967, pp. 31–33
  28. ^ De Groot 1978, p. 221
  29. ^ Steensgaard 1967, pp. 34–36
  30. ^ Steensgaard 1967, p. 50


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

  • De Groot, Alexander (1978), The Ottoman Empire and the Dutch Republic: a History of the Earliest Diplomatic Relations, 1610-1630, Leiden: Nederlands Historisch-Archaeologisch Instituut Leiden/Istanbul, ISBN 9789062580439 
  • Dursteler, Eric R. (2001), "The Bailo in Constantinople: Crisis and Career in Venice's Early Modern Diplomatic Corps", Mediterranean Historical Review 16 (2): 1–30, doi:10.1080/714004583, ISSN 0951-8967 
  • Eldem, Edhem (1999), French Trade in Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century, Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, ISBN 9789004113534 
  • Epstein, Steven A. (2006), Purity Lost: Transgressing Boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean 1000–1400, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 9780801884849 
  • Goffman, Daniel; Aksan, Virginia H. (2007), "Negotiation With the Renaissance State: The Ottoman Empire and the New Diplomacy", The Early Modern Ottomans: Remapping the Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 61–74, ISBN 9780521817646 
  • Goffman, Daniel (2002), The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe, New York: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521452809 
  • Mattingly, Garrett (1963), Renaissance Diplomacy, The Bedford Historical Series, London: Cape, OCLC 270845938 
  • Steensgaard, Neils (1967), "Consuls and Nations in the Levant From 1570 to 1650", The Scandinavian economic history review 15 (1): 13–55, ISSN 03585522 

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