[New publication] Research handbook on international law and cities

Published 3 November 2021

© Shutterstock - Cities are on the frontline of global challenges.

From climate change, to human rights and from migration to security issues: cities are on the frontline of global challenges. In the new Research Handbook on international law and cities, Helmut Aust (Freie Universität Berlin) and Janne E. Nijman (Asser Institute) show the growing importance of the city in international law and governance and the growing importance of international norms for cities. ‘No longer just sites of ‘the local’, cities have become spaces where global influences play out, and they have become actors that meaningfully contribute to shaping what we imagine ‘the global’ to be.’

At the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, an ‘unprecedented coalition of cities’ is participating in the talks where governments must strengthen their contributions to the Paris Agreement implementing climate action. Earlier this year, five UN Rapporteurs criticised the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands, for the controversial demolition and renovation of hundreds of affordable homes. The UN rapporteurs expressed serious concerns about the Rotterdam housing policy and ‘allegations of multiple violations of human rights, contrary to international human rights law’.

These are just two examples of how cities are becoming actors in international law, and how in turn, cites are shaped by international normative influences. For a long time, scholars in public international law did not give a lot of attention to sub-national actors. But according to international law scholars Helmut Aust (Freie Universität Berlin) and Janne E. Nijman (Asser Institute), global governance ‘has moved on far beyond the traditional categories of public international law’ and old categories no longer work’.

Growing global role
In their ground-breaking Research Handbook on International Law and Cities editors Helmut Aust and Janne E. Nijman shed light on the growing global role of cities, and build the case for a renewed understanding of international law, in light of this ‘urban turn’. The volume, with contributions from an interdisciplinary group of scholars, maps the practice of cities in various fields of international law, ranging from climate change to human rights, migration, health governance, transportation and security governance. The book also offers reflections on how the foundations of international law are affected by this ‘urban turn’.

In the introductory chapter (open access), Aust and Nijman - co-chairs to the ILA Study Group on the Role of Cities in International law - retrace how cities have gradually developed into internationally relevant actors, how this development started in other research disciplines and how slow the scholarship of international law has been catching up with this development.

But that has changed in the past decade, and the chapter contains a state of the art overview of the literature in the growing field of international law research on cities as actors in international law, and on cities forming transnational networks and being impacted by normative expectations of good urban governance.

The foreword further articulates how the turn of the city to the international also finds its limits in international law and institutions. Editors Aust and Nijman argue that it is time to ‘take a further step in the production of international law scholarship towards better understanding how international law is transformed through the growing role of cities’.

The interdisciplinary group of contributing authors to the Research Handbook contains both authorities and emerging scholars with fresh perspectives, resulting in a wide range of geographical and theoretical perspectives. Combining doctrinal work and analysis of international practice with critical historical and theoretical contributions, this Research Handbook is a must-have reference book for researchers and students in the field of international law as well as other disciplines, including human geography, urban studies, sociology and political science.

Register now, if you wish to join the event Cities and their global networks - reshaping global governance and international law? on November 17 2021. Read more.  

‘Aust and Nijman’s Research Handbook on International Law and Cities captures the complexity, and the controversy, of the relationship between cities and international law in all its splendour. It is is a skilfully designed and executed – and coherent – work from the leading legal scholars in the field. The reader is led through the history, structure and many of the current issues in what is an increasingly well-established field, both academically and in practice. There will be many more thematic avenues to explore but the principles and the path are set out here. This book will become a dear friend for many historians, political scientists and lawyers, to name but a few.’
Robert Lewis-Lettington, UN-Habitat

‘Walter Benjamin – foremost among writers on cities – once observed (to paraphrase) that crafting a good piece of writing entails making, at once, a musical composition, an architectural construction, and a woven textile. The Research Handbook on International Law and Cities that Helmut Aust and Janne Nijman have assembled, working with Miha Marcenko and a superb array of contributors, succeeds in all these ways. Combining historical, conceptual, practical and critical takes on the role of cities in global phenomena, and on various manifestations of the global in the urban, it sounds provocative notes for future work. Its construction is at once magisterial and replete with intriguing openings. Its fabric is rich in theoretical and empirical threads of value to international law and cognate disciplines. As one sometimes does in a city, I lost myself in its pages, in the most pleasurable way. Regardless of their disciplinary or geographic starting point, all those who read it – or should I say, visit this volume’s many cities –are sure to emerge newly informed and inspired.’
– Fleur Johns, UNSW Sydney, Australia

This Research Handbook offers a rich array of insightful analyses about the way that international law is being shaped, interpreted, and implemented by cities. After exploring historical antecedents, the volume dives into structural aspects of cities within international law, before tackling the role of cities in reshaping particular subject matter areas, such as climate change, human rights and refugees. For those captivated by States and international organizations as the only actors that count, this volume will change your mind.’
– Sean D. Murphy, George Washington University, US and Member, U.N. International Law Commission

Preliminary programme

Read more
‘Urban Legacies of 9/11: An International Law Perspective’ by Helmut Philipp Aust (Freie Universität Berlin) and Janne E. Nijman (Asser Institute). In an essay on constitutional law blog Verfassungsblog, researchers Helmut Philipp Aust (Freie Universität Berlin) and Janne E. Nijman (Asser Institute) point to the missing urban dimension in the international law debates on the attacks of 9/11: “International law needs an update, desperately, to get a sense of how international cooperation is unfolding today”. Read more.

Closing plenary ASIL 2020 – Cities and other sub-national entities: what promise do they hold for international law?
On Friday June 26 2020, the Municipality of The Hague and T.M.C. Asser Instituut convened the online closing plenary of the 2020 virtual annual meeting of the American Society of International Law (ASIL). More than two thousand people registered for the event, which ASIL president Catherine Amirfar subsequently called the ‘largest ASIL plenary on record’. It focused on the ways that cities and communities are engaging with international law. Watch it.

Cities and International Law’
In recent years, cities are often in the media as sites and actors of international and global stories. On climate change, prominent cities were visibly lobbying for bold commitments and concrete steps to be included in the Paris Agreement. Cities are further developing autonomous local solutions related to migration, poverty and inequality, often in conflict with the dominant policies of nation states. Through urbanisation and globalisation, global problems and solutions have become ‘global’. Read more.

Putting cities on the United Nation's agenda: An alternative way of ordering the world
Mayors from around the world promoted their vision of global governance over housing at a special session on the right to adequate housing, held on the fringes of a major United Nations (UN) event on sustainable development. In their vision, municipal governments play a visible and crucial role in dealing with the global housing crisis. Read more here.

ILA Study Group on the Role of Cities in International Law: City Reports
The International Law Association Study Group on the Role of Cities in International Law is collecting reports on cities' engagement with international law. The city reports shed light on city practices, in particular of local governments, in relation to international law, on cities’ engagement with other cities, international organizations and/or global governancance mechanisms. Read more.


Research Handbook on International Law and Cities - Editors Janne E. Nijman & Helmut Aust

Register now, if you wish to join the event Cities and their global networks - reshaping global governance and international law? on November 17 2021. Read more.