Last updated

A plenipotentiary (from the Latin plenus "full" and potens "powerful") is a diplomat who has full powers—authorization to sign a treaty or convention on behalf of his or her sovereign. [1] When used as a noun more generally, the word plenipotentiary can also refer to any person who has full powers. When used an adjective, plenipotentiary describes something which confers full powers, such as an edict or an assignment. [2]



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.

Colonial era

Pre-World War II Europe

Nazi Germany

In Africa

Since 1945

South Africa

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 18 May 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 13 May: 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. [3] However, almost the exact word exists in at least some of the Romance languages (such as Portuguese - plenipotenciário; French - plénipotentiaire; Romanian - plenipotențiar; 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), Danish fuldmægtig, 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"); Slovenian pooblaščeni (adjective) or pooblaščênec (noun); Polish pełnomocnik (pełno "of full", moc "power"); Bulgarian пълномощен (pǎlnomošten); Finnish täysivaltainen; Greek πληρεξούσιος plirexoúsios; Turkish tam yetkili; Tatar wäqälätle. ARABIC "مفوض"

See also

Related Research Articles

Wilhelm Frick German Nazi Party politician

Wilhelm Frick was a prominent German politician of the Nazi Party (NSDAP), who served as Reich Minister of the Interior in Adolf Hitler's cabinet from 1933 to 1943 and as the last governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

Fritz Todt German engineer and senior Nazi figure

Fritz Todt was a German construction engineer and senior Nazi who rose from the position of Inspector General for German Roadways, in which he directed the construction of the German autobahns (Reichsautobahnen), to become the Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition. From that position, he directed the entire German wartime military economy.

President of Romania Head of state

The president of Romania is the head of state of Romania. Following a modification to the Romanian Constitution in 2003, the president is directly elected by a two-round system and serves for five years. An individual may serve two terms. During their term in office, the president may not be a formal member of a political party.

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia Partially annexed territory of Nazi Germany in Central Europe (1939-45)

The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was a partially annexed territory of Nazi Germany established on 16 March 1939 following the German occupation of the Czech lands on 15 March 1939. Earlier, following the Munich Agreement of September 1938, Nazi Germany had incorporated the Czech Sudetenland territory as a Reichsgau.

Hitler cabinet Government ministers of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler

The Hitler cabinet was the government of Nazi Germany between 30 January 1933 and 30 April 1945 upon the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of the German Reich by president Paul von Hindenburg. It was originally contrived by the national conservative politician Franz von Papen, who reserved the office of the Vice-Chancellor for himself. Originally, Hitler's first cabinet was called the Reich Cabinet of National Salvation, which was a coalition of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) and the national conservative German National People's Party (DNVP).

Diplomatic rank is a system of professional and social rank used in the world of diplomacy and international relations. A diplomat's rank determines many ceremonial details, such as the order of precedence at official processions, table seatings at state dinners, the person to whom diplomatic credentials should be presented, and the title by which the diplomat should be addressed.

Reichskommissariat Ukraine Civilian-administered region of German-occupied Ukraine during WWII

During World War II, Reichskommissariat Ukraine was the civilian occupation regime (Reichskommissariat) of much of Nazi German-occupied Ukraine. It was governed by the Reich Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories headed by Alfred Rosenberg. Between September 1941 and August 1944, the Reichskommissariat was administered by Erich Koch as the Reichskommissar. The administration's tasks included the pacification of the region and the exploitation, for German benefit, of its resources and people. Adolf Hitler issued a Führer Decree defining the administration of the newly occupied Eastern territories on 17 July 1941.

Axis leaders of World War II

The Axis leaders of World War II were important political and military figures during World War II. The Axis was established with the signing of the Tripartite Pact in 1940 and pursued a strongly militarist and nationalist ideology; with a policy of anti-communism. During the early phase of the war, puppet governments were established in their occupied nations. When the war ended, many of them faced trial for war crimes. The chief leaders were Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Hirohito of Japan. Unlike what happened with the Allies, there was never a joint meeting of the main Axis heads of government, although Mussolini and Hitler did meet on a regular basis.

Belgian government in exile Government in exile of Belgium between October 1940 and September 1944 during World War II.

The Belgian government in London, also known as the Pierlot IV Government, was the government in exile of Belgium between October 1940 and September 1944 during World War II. The government was tripartite, involving ministers from the Catholic, Liberal and Labour Parties. After the invasion of Belgium by Nazi Germany in May 1940, the Belgian government, under Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot, fled first to Bordeaux in France and then to London, where it established itself as the only legitimate representation of Belgium to the Allies.

Albert De Vleeschauwer Belgian politician

Albert De Vleeschauwer, later Baron Albert De Vleeschauwer van Braekel, was a Belgian politician of the Catholic Party.

The Council of Ministers for the Defense of the Reich was a six-member ministerial council created in Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler on 30 August 1939, in anticipation of the invasion of Poland – which provoked the beginning of World War II – with the purpose of allowing the continuation of the Nazi government, especially in relation to the war effort, while Hitler concentrated on prosecuting the war. The Council has been described as functioning as a "war cabinet," although this assessment is disputed.

Reich Defense Commissioner

Reich Defense Commissioner was a governmental position created in Nazi Germany at the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939. Charged with overall defense of the territory of the German Reich, there was originally one Reich Defense Commissioner for each of 15 Wehrkreise. On 16 November 1942, the geographical scope was reduced to the Gau level, raising the number of Reich Defense Commissioners to 42.


  1. Explanation of Full Powers on the United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office website
  2. " - plenipotentiary".
  3. Most Untranslatable Word.