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Welcome / Blog Archive / Book Review / 2021-12-doc10 A ‘city’ and its role in international law

2021-12-doc10 A ‘city’ and its role in international law

Many people live in it or visit (and train of fly to) it: a city. Politically and legally a ‘city’ starts to beat the drum and is asking for a role in the global arena. In public international law a city has been a non-issue, until some 20 years ago. At that time a city was seen as an administrative sub-unit of a state. Now, all over the world cities cover the largest economies of the world. In 2021 the top 20 most wealthy cities include New York City, Tokyo, San Francisco Bay area, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Seoul, Los Angeles and Mumbai, including from Europe London, Geneva, Frankfurt, Zurich and Paris. Cities increasingly have become globally significant actors. However, their importance as political and legal actors is (still) limited. In the Research Handbook on International Law and Cities (edited by Aust and Nijman), in no less than 35 chapters a demonstration is given of a growing activity on a global scale as well as the character and role of cities in the age of globalisation. In general, there is a strong tendency to break the legal eggshell around cities and to display cities as spaces where global influences play out just as well. The authors argue that cities also have become actors that meaningfully contribute to shaping the living conditions around the globe. So, where do cities stand in the debate on international public law?

Section I in the book starts off with some historical analogies, like references to the towns and cities on the Chinese Silk Road(s) (Chapter 2, Hansen), the Hanseatic League (Ch. 3, Boestad, not covering Dutch Hanse cities) and Italian city republics (Ch. 4, Lepsius, rightly demonstrating the rather different private law systems, and therefore the need for a system of international private law or conflicts-of-law)). These historic roots assist in seeing more clearly the circumstances and elements of the current international legal order, what cannot be achieved and what may be possible in the next twenty years or even beyond that. Cities may have been shielded away behind the building blocks of the walls of international law. However, there are certainly traces that their presence could be identified (Ch. 6, Sossai). The historical dimension also makes the reader understand how important economic situations and developments are for cities and their networks (Ch. 5, Nuzzi), their role in decolonisation (Ch. 7, Eslava and Hill) as well as provide reflections on the political economies behind the ever-evolving relationship between states and cities across time (Ch. 8, Vorman).

A next section in the Handbook covers ‘Cities and fundamental concepts of international law’. The editors introduce what they call the Maschinenraum of the law in order to better understand the foundational categories of international law. The Handbook includes different chapters on subjectivity (Ch. 9, Blank, presenting welcome insights to the legal status of cities in international (public) law), the sources of law-making (Ch. 10, Takashiba) and ‘responsibility’ (Ch. 11, Creutz, matters of liability presuming that cities can be potential law-breakers of international law). Other chapters concern the position of cities – as international actors – in international dispute settlement (Ch. 12, Baumgärtel, discussing whether cities are more democratic, legitimate, responsive, adaptable and effective than national governments), the role of international organisations, the quest for a growing role of cities (Ch. 13, Katz Cogan) and the (possible) fundamental changes to the rock-solid foundational concept of sovereignty (Ch. 14, Beaudouin).

In the third section the contributions seek to shed light on how different practice areas of international law are now also regulated (often in a non-binding form) by cities and their activities. These policy fields, also shaped by the activities of cities, include climate change governance and sustainable development (Ch. 15, Du Plessis, including notes on IPCC), more general environmental governance (Ch. 16, Lin, introducing 3 Transnational multinational networks, TMNs), counterterrorism (Ch. 17, Rodiles), human rights (Ch. 18, Davis) and migration (Ch. 19, Oomen). A prime topic on my agenda would be the role of cities in combatting poverty and household debts, especially where consumer insolvency legislation provides for a role of a city (debt counselling, financial education, preventing of over-indebtedness or non-judicial debt settlement procedures).

Where these contributions show that cities are acting or can be active, the developments of cooperation between cities are still in their infant shoes (Ch. 20, Riegner). However, the role of cities in areas of global governance cannot be underestimated (such as health governance, Ch. 11, Iaione and De Nictolis, and economic cooperation, Ch. 22, Viñuales and Reimers). As a city is also making its mark on the shaping of transnational regimes of law, the making of the Olympic games in London is presented as an example (Ch. 23, Duval, analysing the ‘Host City Contract’, a rare mix of public and private law, leaving hardly any room for a city itself; it has barely have room to maneuver), whilst the former Mayor of Quito, Mauricio Rodas, demonstrates his ambition and commitment of playing a role in the global theatre in the international activities and the organisation of the Habitat III Conference in 2016. For any major of a city this contribution is a must read, including thoughts on the obstacles any action could face: political rivalry, why should we do this?, what about the costs?, stakeholder opposition, lack of national support, unexperienced city-staff, weak infrastructure for implementation, to name the most obvious ones. Nevertheless, Rodas is firm: cities are becoming major global actors and we need to set the international legal framework to have them work properly.

The last section of the Research Handbook has invited other disciplines to express their views on the topic and engage in further discussion. Some stray quite a bit. Contributions include the perspective of international relations scholarship (Ch. 25, Curtis), political theory (Ch. 26, Barak and De Shalit) and sociology (Ch. 34, Litwin). The editors also stress to go further with theorising the role of cities on the international level, more particularly the democratic argument for a greater role of cities in international law (Ch. 27, Besson and Marti, calling for strengthening of the democratic legitimacy of cities in international law), the role of a city as ‘Earth system altering geologic agent’ (Ch. 28, Korzé), the translation of insights from scholarship on international relations into the field of international law (Ch. 29, Foster and Swiney), local government law and its constitutional law foundations (Ch. 30, Cartier, comparing France, USA, Germany, UK, The Netherlands and Canada), the notions of urban governance and local government law (Ch. 31, Colombo and Groenleer), global administrative law and the role of a city in it (Ch 32, Fromageau), the role of cities as global actors (Ch. 33, Klabbers), the social science dimension of their role (Ch. 34, Litwin) as well as an exploration of the ‘hidden city’ in urban zoning with particular privileges for investment or cheap labour (Ch. 35, Knob).

Both editors are chairing the ILA Study Group on ‘The Role of Cities in International Law’ and the Handbook is one of its results as well as a call to further work by the Group. In all, the Research Handbook provides a comprehensive analysis and assessment of the impact of international law on cities. Collectively, the chapters testify to the expanding horizons of international law, but at the same time they test the ambiguities and politics that come with the interpretation and application of international law when a ‘city’ is involved. Some fascinating and provocative portraits shed light on the growing global role of cities. The book, too, makes the case for a renewed understanding of international law in the light of present developments. Globalization puts pressure on the democratic process in a state. At national and local level, this creates space to increase the legislator’s scope for action. National legislators are in the position to promote the value of a local democracy. Among its readers I expect, in addition to scholars, representatives of national governments as well as cities, looking for a deeper understanding of the theme and with an open mind to best practices in certain areas where cities are enlarging their footstep in policy areas of concern to many local communities.

Helmut Philipp Aust and Janne E. Nijman, Research Handbook on International Law and Cities, Edward Elgar 2021, ISBN: 978 1 78897 327 4.

Note: this book I received free of charge from the publisher with the request to announce it or to review it on my blog at