The role of cities in international law: researchers meet in Berlin

Published 9 December 2019


In the second week of December, researchers from the Asser Institute participated in two important academic events concerning the role of cities in international law at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany. Renowned academics from all over the world met there to discuss the changing relation between cities and international law.

Globalisation, urbanisation, and decentralisation are three trends that contribute to the ‘internationalisation of the city’, Asser academic director Prof. Janne Nijman argued in ‘The Renaissance of the City as Global Actor. Nijman: ”In recent years, we see that cities are stepping onto the international stage as global actors. Municipal governments, for instance, were lobbying for bold commitments and concrete steps to be included in the Paris Agreement on climate change. And during the migration ‘crisis’, European cities made headlines with their own local solutions for migration issues, as did the phenomenon of ‘sanctuary cities’ in the United States and Europe.”

Cities as partners of international institutions
The visibility of cities in the international arena is also growing. Municipal governments have become partners of international institutions in sustainable development processes, as well as are important carriers of international human rights obligations. Transnational intercity networks are vocal supporters and promotors of agendas developed by the United Nations, as the initiative for localisation of ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ shows. According to international officials, cities are poised to play a critical role in their implementation, as it is the cities – rather than nations -  that have become the socio-political spaces where our struggle for global sustainability will be won, - or lost.

This developing interaction of cities with international law and governance is gaining increasing recognition. A reason for Janne E. Nijman and Helmut Aust from the Freie Universität Berlin to develop a research handbook on the theme, inviting a diverse selection of authors to look at a wide variety of aspects, ranging from history to dispute settlement and everything in between. In Berlin, the authors discussed their contributions to the Edgar Research Handbook on Cities and International Law. The conference programme of the author’s workshop for the Handbook on Cities and International Law is available here.

Emerging legal field
At the same event, the International Law Association (ILA) Study Group on the ‘Role of Cities in International law’ discussed its progress in research on the changing relationship between cities, international law and governance. The study group was established in 2017 after a proposal by co-chairs Janne E. Nijman and Helmut Aust to explore this emerging legal field. In Berlin, the ILA study group members exchanged views on the çity reports that will be included as annexes to the official Report of ILA study group to the ILA Kyoto conference in 2020. The Study Group has an ongoing call that invites researchers to submit abstracts for reports on city practices in relation to international law.

Further reading
For more information about cities and international law, please visit our Global Cities weblog

The International Law Association was founded in Brussels in 1873. It has a membership of around 4000 international lawyers around the world. Its objectives, under its Constitution, are "the study, clarification and development of international law, both public and private, and the furtherance of international understanding and respect for international law". Study Groups of the ILA are established to allow quick responses to urgent questions. Study groups consist of a small group of recognised international law experts.