Revisiting Carlos Calvo on the 200th Anniversary of his Birth

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It was recently the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Argentine diplomat and jurist Carlos Calvo. Despite the fact that he died more than a century ago, his name resonates continuously in international literature through the so-called “Calvo Doctrine” and the “Calvo Clause”. However, his rich legal and political thinking exceeds these two concepts. This short piece attempts to perform a brief journey into the fascinating life and vast work of one of the key figures in the development of modern international law, which can serve as inspiration to face the complex world we live in.

The early years of Calvo

Carlos Calvo was born in Montevideo, when Uruguay was part of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (now Argentina) on February 12, 1822 (there are different versions about Calvo’s place and date of birth, although this seems to be the correct data according to a certification that appeared in Montevideo, see Pérez Calvo, at p. 21). Calvo’s public life began in 1852 when he was appointed vice-consul in Montevideo, first by the Argentine Confederation and soon after by Buenos Aires (when that province withdrew from the Confederation and became an independent state). His experience in Uruguay forged him as a diplomat, where he had to deal with various attempts to destabilize Buenos Aires orchestrated by numerous Argentine refugees in Montevideo. As a self-taught jurist (there is no proof that he had completed any university studies), he had to make use of international law to remind Uruguayan authorities of the rules applicable to neutral states.

He returned to Buenos Aires in 1858, when he was elected deputy in the legislature of that state. In 1859 he acted as adviser to Francisco Solano López, son of the president of Paraguay, who was the mediator in the unification of Buenos Aires with the Confederation. At the end of 1859, López proposed Calvo to go on a diplomatic mission to the United Kingdom to re-establish the relations interrupted by the Canstatt incident and the attack on the Paraguayan warship Tacuarí. Santiago Canstatt (registered as a British citizen) was arrested by the Paraguayan authorities, accused of being part of a plot to assassinate President López. In retaliation for Canstatt’s arrest, two British warships attacked the Tacuarí in the port of Buenos Aires. Once in London, Calvo proved to be a skilful diplomat who knew how to denounce the excesses of armed interventions and how to use the influence of the press and the personal relations he had built to make the two states reach an amicable settlement.

The saga of the Canstatt affair was immortalised in his book Una página del derecho internacional. The purpose of the work was to make known “to the governments and peoples of Europe some of [the] abuses that are committed in their name” (Ibid. at pp. 4). The book describes some experiences that shaped Calvo’s view about international law. He met some British diplomats in Paraná and Buenos Aires before traveling to Great Britain. Calvo noted:

“Those gentlemen were not embarrassed to announce the forthcoming arrival of a powerful squadron that would immediately cross the mighty Plata and its great Paraná and Paraguay tributaries, without stopping as far as reaching the port of Asunción, from where they intended to sweep away the populations of the capital of Paraguay, if the government of Mr. López did not immediately accept the peremptory demands of their diplomacy” (Ibid. at pp. 170).

The consolidation of the scholar and the diplomat

From 1861, Calvo settled in Paris and devoted himself to publish what would become his vast work. In 1862 Calvo started the publication of his Colección Completa of the treaties and other diplomatic acts of the states of Latin America (11 volumes) and in 1864 he started the Anales Históricos of the revolution in Latin America (5 volumes). It took him several years to complete these compilations, for which he visited different libraries and archives across Europe and resorted to friends and diplomats searching for documents.

In 1868 the first edition of his treatise Derecho Internacional Teórico y Práctico de Europa y América appeared. The title of the work reflects a constant in Calvo’s work: seeking certainty (and avoiding abuses) in international law through the analysis of the practice followed by states and emphasizing that the international rules applicable to the countries of Europe and America should be the same. Calvo published the following four editions of the treatise in French, which would allow a global dissemination of his work. Some years later Calvo published the first dictionary of international law.

As of 1876, Calvo resumed his duties as an Argentine diplomat. He acted as immigration commissioner and was the Argentine representative in Vienna, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, Paris, and Rome (where he contributed to restore diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Argentina). In all these functions Calvo oversaw spreading Argentina’s economic and political progress, promoting immigration, investment, and international trade. Calvo also collaborated in the defence of Argentine rights in different territorial disputes.

At that time, Calvo was considered one of the highest authorities on international law. His treatise, translated into several languages, had become one of the most influential of the time, subject to permanent consultation by different foreign ministries and frequently cited by the domestic courts of many states. For this reason, Calvo received numerous recognitions by different governments and scientific institutions. Calvo was also one of the founding members (the only Latin American) of the Institute of International Law in 1873.

Calvo’s Legacy

One of Calvo’s obsessions was the development of the young nations of Latin America (he was one of the first to use this term to designate the region) and their insertion on an equal footing in the international scene. This idea is embedded in many of his main contributions to the development of international law and international relations. I will briefly mention some of them.

First, he made a strong argument on the equality of states. (Calvo, Derecho internacional, 1868, v. 1, at 110). Second, he condemned the abuses in the interventions of European powers in Latin America (Calvo, Le droit international, 1887, v. 1, at 351). Third, he was against the idea that foreigners could have more rights than nationals. (Calvo, Derecho internacional, 1868, v. 1, at 392-393). Fourth, despite the above, he also made the point on the situations of denial of justice (Calvo, Le droit international, 1888, v. 3, at 229). Fifth, he underlined that governments were not responsible for losses suffered by foreigners in times of internal disturbances or civil wars (Calvo, De la non responsabilité, 1869, at 417). Sixth, he underlined through his works the relevance of immigration, international trade and international investment as means for the development of states (Calvo, Colección Completa, 1862, v.1, at iv). Seventh, he vigorously opposed the idea of the existence of an “American international law” different from European or General international law (Calvo, Nueva Revista de Buenos Aires, 1883, vol. VIII, at 631) since this could justify inequalities between nations (Calvo, Anales Históricos, 1864, v. 1, pp. xcv-xcvii).

Some of these ideas are part of what is known as the “Calvo Doctrine” (i.e. foreigners must receive the same treatment as nationals and states cannot resort to armed interventions to collect debts or to carry out claims in favour of its nationals) and would be a justification for the so-called “Calvo Clause” (the possibility of foreigners to waive diplomatic protection, reflected in several Latin American constitutions). It has been argued that these two ideas already existed in international law (Montt, at 35-48) and this perhaps reinforce Calvo’s value. Arguably, Calvo never pretended to create a doctrine or invent a clause. What he aimed, without any doubt, was to spread his ideas of justice and equality for Latin America and he had the skills and means to do so. As Obregón notes, Calvo “saw international law as a strategic and necessary language of power and survival” and he “used his writing to strategically integrate the periphery into the center of international legal scholarship where he knew the power of the international law resided.”

Calvo and the XXI Century

Two centuries after his birth, Calvo’s legal and political thinking appears to still be relevant. The ideas of equality among states, non-intervention, unity of international law and progress through cooperation need to be recalled more often than wished. But above all, what appears to be appealing about Calvo is the image of a man from the periphery, who witnessed civil wars, foreign interventions, and acts of aggression and, besides all this, managed to put the periphery into the centre of discussion and saw international law as a tool for solving problems and reaching development. In a complex world, Calvo’s life and works serve as a reminder about the power of international law.


This post was written some days prior to the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. My first reaction after this action took place was that it was not the right moment to celebrate the memory of a man who died more than 100 years ago. However, thinking it carefully, I think there is perhaps no better time to remember the legacy of a scholar who devoted an important part of his life to denouncing the abuses of the use of force and defending the territorial integrity of states.

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