Cities and International Law: collecting empirical evidence

Published 11 February 2020
By Lisa Roodenburg

© Pixabay

The relation between international law and cities has been receiving more and more attention recently. Scholars provide accounts of local governments that invoke the norms of international law in their local legislation and policy. They write about city networks that organize around international legal norms embedded in for instance CEDAW, the Paris Climate Agreement or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Scholars discuss the relation between local governments and international organisations (e.g. UN Habitat or World Bank).

I notice that these accounts regularly refer to the same examples. One will often read about the C40 network and their climate action, the Cities for CEDAW that incorporate CEDAW principles in local legislation and cities such as Barcelona, San Francisco and New York. These examples are named regularly, because they are exemplary and innovative. At the same time, it makes me wonder how extensive and wide-spread the relation between cities and international law is.

This is not to question that there is something distinct happening. The 2019 United Cities and Local Governments World Congress of cities that took place in Durban was presented as the largest gathering of mayors and local officials from around the world. At the 2019 COP25 Climate Summit in Madrid, the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities constituency had a delegation of more than 100 mayors and local officials. We might hear less about some parts of the world, or about less-known cities, but this does not mean that there is nothing taking place. Sara Miellet, for instance, writes about small and medium-sized Dutch municipalities’ efforts with regard to human rights localization – while the names of these municipalities will not sound familiar to most.

To get a better overview of all activity taking place, the ILA study group on the Role of Cities in International Law has launched a city reporting project. These so-called ‘city reports’ will 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 governance mechanisms.  In the fall of 2019, the study group circulated an ongoing call for contributions, to collect empirical insights at an ongoing basis and work towards a better overview of the relation between cities and international law.