For several reasons, the role of Latin America in the course of the history of international law has been disregarded. Bearing this in mind and pointing out the importance of Latin America in the reconfiguration of a new global legal order, Juan Scarfi in his most recent article to the Vol. 61 of RBPI argued that a specific legal field was consolidated in the region, which made possible to create the conditions to project Latin American legal field towards a globalized approach. This article combined a historical approach to international relations and international law and was methodologically drawn on some of the writings, legal speeches and projects of four important Latin American figures: Alejandro Alvarez, Ruy Barbosa, and Carlos Saavedra Lamas.

In your article, you mention that “historians working on global intellectual history and the history of international law have tended to disregard the role of Latin America as if studying global issues forces us to dismiss particularities.” In your opinion, what are the main reasons for this disregard?

As shown in my article, the first and most important reason for this disregard is that Latin America has long occupied – and still continues to occupy – an ambivalent and unsettled position within global intellectual history and the history of international law and global politics, since it is not quite clear whether it is part of the West or the non-West, that is, the so-called Rest. Therefore, while there have been recent attempts to explore non-Western actors, processes and the history of intellectual and legal developments outside of the West with the growing globalization of IR and the history of international law, the ambivalent identity of the region in the post-colonial period still remains to be examined and studied. A second and probably more specific reason for this disregard is that Latin American jurists and diplomats themselves, such as those explored in my article for instance, Alejandro Alvarez and Isidro Fabela, adopted opposing views about the role and place of Latin America in relation to the continent and the region, as well as the U.S., Europe and the non-Western world. Their contradictory visions about continental and regional ideas and traditions of international law contributed to generating even more confusion about the role and mission of the region in global politics, creating different understandings about how international law should be constructed and deployed in relation to the rise of US hegemony and the construction of US-led international organizations, such as the League of Nations. A third implication of this disregard could be seen in itself as an interesting paradox. This ambivalent role and position of Latin America in a global context created grounds for this disregard, but at the same time it has very recently become a window of opportunity for a number of scholars in global history, IR and international law, who have begun to concentrate on the attitudes of Latin American actors in each of these very diverse set of global settings, including the Western Hemisphere, Latin America in relation to the Third World and the non-West, as well as in relation to Europe. What these emerging studies are showing is that although the region is internally diverse and complex, Latin America global identity has long been conceived as a single unit but an unsettled one in the post-colonial context. A comparative and broader analysis of Latin America – and Latin American countries – in relation to these global settings would certainly tend to confirm this ambivalence, which I hope could also become a stimulus for further comparison and innovative research on global history and politics.

One of the main ideas developed by Alejandro Alvarez was the principle of non-intervention. However, in the context of the Pan-American Conference (especially the Sixth one), this principle faced limits and was not possible to establish the non-intervention as an absolute principle. Why?

Alejandro Alvarez advocated a moderate approach to the principle of non-intervention when he began to put forward a series of plans and arrangements of the codification of public international law in the Americas in the 1910s and 1920s, as shown in the article and also in my recent book, The Hidden History of International Law in the Americas (OUP: 2017). In other words, Alvarez believed that the principle should have some limits. Therefore, the principle of absolute non-intervention was problematic for Alvarez. This original moderate approach created grounds for further controversy about whether the principle of non-interventions had to be deployed and defended as an absolute one or there could be some scope for exceptional forms of collective, humanitarian or exceptional interventions. It is quite clear that the moderate approach advocated by Alvarez generated scope for creating limits. Moreover, Latin American jurists and diplomats adopted contending understandings about US interventions in the region and whether US hegemony was either beneficial or problematic for the region. These understandings deeply informed their approaches to the principle of non-intervention. While Fabela and Saavedra Lamas believed that US hegemony and interventionism in the region was problematic, Alvarez, as well as other members of the American Institute of International Law, such as Víctor Maúrtua, Antonio Sánchez de Bustamante and US jurist James Brown Scott, were convinced that US interventions and the Platt Amendment, which legitimated US interventions in Cuba on a regular basis, could be necessary and justifiable. In the context of the Sixth Pan-American Conference these two opposing approaches clashed with one another, the principle of absolute non-intervention could not be established and thus the US maintained a right and scope for intervening in the region until the early 1930s, when this principle was formally adopted at the Seventh Pan-American Conference held in Montevideo.

Despite being such a heterogeneous and diverse region, Latin America was a pioneer in the promotion of a regional approach to international law. Could we argue that this set of Latin American approaches evolved along the years and are the milestones of the regional integration attempts (e.g., CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA…) and regional organizations (e.g., Organization of American States and Inter-American Court of Human Rights)?

These regional and hemispheric approaches to American and Latin American international law, as I have shown in my article, evolved in different and complex directions and thus eventually became milestones of rival and opposing projects and initiatives in the present. It is worth noting that the terms and character of these projects and traditions, and the aspirations of Latin American jurists, diplomats and politicians changed sharply from the early twentieth century to the early twenty first century. In particular, the debate over the nature and fundamentals of continental and regional international law in the early twentieth century was particularly sophisticated. Yet following the Cold War, Latin American regional legal sensibility has tended to move, inform and overlap with well-established hemispheric Inter-American organizations. For these reasons, a number of scholars in IR and international law tend disregard how these two opposing legal sensibilities emerged and evolved, as if the Inter-American System and inter-American institutions and organizations had been always informed and guided exclusively by Latin American countries and concerns and a regional ideology, dismissing US hegemonic agency and role in the construction and consolidation of such institutions. While in my book The Hidden History of International Law in the Americas (2017), I have shown the important and hegemonic role played by the U.S. in the construction and consolidation of a continental legal tradition and the Inter-American System as such in its formative period as the Pan American Union, in this article I have expanded this argument, arguing that these emerging Pan-American institutions and U.S. hegemony within those organizations posed important limits for Latin American jurists and diplomats for constructing alternative regional Latin American projects of integration, moving away from those institutions and legal frameworks. There has been always a long-standing quest among Latin American jurists, politicians and diplomats for consolidating projects of regional integration outside of the Inter-American System, and despite the fact that some of them have failed in certain cases, there continues to be a regional effort for reviving and reconstructing them.

Regarding the main argument pointed out in the article that Latin America played a vital and complex role in the reconfiguration of a new global order in the early twentieth century, do you think that this Latin American role clashed with the U.S. continental hegemony (e.g., Pax Americana)? How?

This Latin American role certainly clashed with U.S. hemispheric hegemony. As shown in my article, U.S. hegemony and interventionism in the region from the late nineteenth century up to the early 1930s created important limitations for advancing Latin American initiatives and projects advocating the consolidation of the principle of non-intervention as a legitimate premise for a continental code of public international law for the continent and as part of the so-called Inter-American System. The American Institute of International Law (AIIL), which coordinated and unified all the national societies of international law of the continent, was essentially a US-led legal network based in Washington D.C. and funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in which it was difficult for Latin American jurists and diplomats, such as Alvarez, the Secretary General, to question U.S. interventionism and even the US-led legal habitus of the organization. However, Latin American jurists and diplomats, such as Alvarez and Barbosa, played a remarkable role within Pan-American and Inter-American organizations, such as the AIIL and the Pan-American conferences and even in international conferences such as the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907, promoting continental and international peace, sovereign equality and the consolidation of multilateral institutions that eventually contributed to, if not limit, at least moderate U.S. hegemony and interventionism in the region. All in all, it should be noted that for jurists and diplomats, such as Fabela and Saavedra Lamas, who were fervent advocates of the principle of absolute non-intervention and sought to move away from the AIIL and the Inter-American System, it was very difficult, as addressed in my article, to create an alternative legal network from the AIIL, because the organization became the epicentre and main forum of debates and discussions among international lawyers across the Americas. In other words, alternative visions from those promoted by the AIIL were marginalised and scattered in small legal and political circles and could not find other proper institutional and political settings.

Read the article

Scarfi, Juan Pablo. (2018). Globalizing the Latin American legal field: continental and regional approaches to the international legal order in Latin America. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 61(2), e005. Epub October 19, 2018.

About the authors

Juan Pablo Scarfi is Director of the MA in International Relations at the Escuela de Política y Gobierno, Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM) and a Research Associate at CONICET, Argentina. PhD, University of Cambridge ( /

Tiago Tasca – Editorial Assistant of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional

How to cite this interview

Cite this article as: Editoria, "Globalizing the Latin American legal field: continental and regional approaches to the international legal order in Latin America – an interview with Juan Pablo Scarfi by Tiago Tasca," in Revista Mundorama, 09/02/2019,

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