Cities and International Law

Published 1 March 2019
by Miha Marcenko

The field of cities and international law has developed to a stage which allows for authors focusing on various aspects of international law and global governance in their contemporary and historical dimensions to come together and look at the urban-global interaction. © Shutterstock.

In recent years, cities have often been mentioned in the news as sites and actors of international and global stories. During the international conference on climate change municipal governments and especially the C40 organisation, representing prominent cities, were visibly lobbying for bold commitments and concrete steps to be included in the Paris Agreement. A different example making waves in the news has been the migration ‘crisis’ and the phenomenon of sanctuary cities in United States and Europe. These cities have been noticed because they have been developing autonomous local solutions related to migration, often in conflict with the dominant policies of nation states.

Cities have also been visible as socio-political sites through which the global crisis of poverty and inequality have gotten a local face and where pragmatic local solutions, affecting one street at a time and often developed from the bottom up, have become global inspirations. In other words, the public has started to recognisie that through urbanisation and globalisation, global problems and solutions have become tightly intertwined with local - urban political processes.

This increased visibility of cities has also been prominent in the processes and discourses of international law and global governance. Municipal governments have become partners of international institutions in processes of sustainable development and important carriers of international human rights obligations. Their transnational intercity networks have become vocal supporters and promotors of agendas developed by the UN, as the initiative for localisation of ‘Sustainable Development Goals shows. And cities have, according to international officials, become the socio-political spaces where our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost.

Scholarly Views

These developments have also created an interest among scholars of international law, global governance and international relations. Decades ago, it was the scholars of urban sociology and globalisation such as Saskia Sassen[1] that made giant leaps in theorising the increased relevance of global cities. They argued that the unstoppable march of neo-liberalism and the transformation of the global capitalism made cities the crucial nodes in global capital flows. This rise of ‘the global city’ in global economy was changing processes within cities as well as altering the relationship between cities and their states, since cities became something more than just sub-units of these states.

These insights into the changing role of cities in global economy were the theoretical foundations on which more than ten years ago scholars started exploring the actorship of municipal governments in global public matters and their interaction with the international order and international law. If those urban sociologists focused on what Janne Nijman would later call the ‘global private city’, new scholars became interested in the rise of the ‘global public city’.[2] Authors such as Professor Yishai Blank[3] argued that municipal governments are becoming important actors in various international legal processes and are gaining a certain international subjectivity along the way. Cities, according to Professor Blank are assuming international duties and authority, are becoming objects of international regulation and becoming enforcers and promotors of international norms and standards.  In a related manner, other authors, namely Gerald E. Frug and David J. Barron [4] argued that international law is attempting to change the internal organisation of states, through its focus local governance, decentralisation and the principle of subsidiarity.

The proliferation of transnational intercity organisations and the increased international actorship of municipal governments were also recognised to be connected to other changes in international law. Janne Nijman, coming from a wider international theoretical perspective, explored the rise of cities through the context of de-formalisation of international law and the rise of non-state actors.[5] She, as has later Helmut Aust[6], argued that the rise of the city raises a whole new set of challenges and opportunities for a meaningful governance of our world and the sustainability of the international liberal order.

Academic field research: the global-urban normative interaction

Since then, research into the role of cities in international law, global governance, and international relations has only expanded. The fundamental contributions I have mentioned above have settled the ground on which more nuanced and detailed research into the role of cities in international ordering is now flourishing. Our project ‘Global City: The role of law then and now’ is an example of such research.  We use the interaction between cities and international law as a basis for detailed historical, discursive, socio-legal and other exploration of specific topics.

And it is in this context that an international conference on cities and international law will be taking place at the Asser Institute on 14th and 15th March. The conference will bring together over twenty scholars who are at initial stages of their research, which will eventually culminate in an edited handbook on cities and international law. The event will allow these authors to engage with each other’s topics in a relatively informal setting, and will hopefully help each other develop their arguments in unexpected directions.

The field of cities and international law has developed to a stage which allows for authors focusing on various aspects of international law and global governance in their contemporary and historical dimensions to come together and look at the urban-global interaction. Which historical examples of transnational autonomy of cities exist, what role do cities play in the project of human rights, and of sustainable development, what kind of democratic potential does the rise of the city bring to global governance? Authors present at the conference will engage with these questions and many others.

This short blog post aimed at giving some context to the conference on cities and international law and to connect it to our research project. Hopefully, the readers were able to glimpse how expansive and dynamic our research field is and were able to share my enthusiasm for attending the upcoming conference.


[1] The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton University Press, 2001 updated 2nd ed); The Global Cities Reader (edited by Neil Brenner and Roger Keil) (Routledge 2006)

[2] Janne Nijman, Renaissance of the City as Global Actor. The role of foreign policy and international law practices in the construction of cities as global actors', in The Transformation of Foreign Policy: Drawing and Managing Boundaries, ed. by Andreas Fahrmeir, Gunther Hellmann, and Miloš Vec (OUP, 2016) pp. 209-241

[3] Y Blank, ‘The City and the World’ [2006] Columbia Journal of Transnational Law <> accessed 11 October 2016; Y Blank, ‘Localism in the New Global Legal Order’ [2006] Harv. Int’l LJ <> accessed 3 October 2016.

[4] GE Frug and DJ Barron, ‘International Local Government Law’ [2006] The Urban Lawyer <> accessed 3 October 2016.

[5] Janne Nijman, ‘The Future of the City and the International Law of the Future’ (2011) 11; Janne E Nijman, ‘The Rising Influence of Urban Actors’ (2009) 17 The Broker 14.

[6] HP Aust, ‘Shining Cities on the Hill? The Global City, Climate Change, and International Law’ (2015) 26 European Journal of International Law 255 <> accessed 21 November 2016.