Though international law is traditionally viewed as a means of regulating sovereign states, cities are drawing increasing (albeit careful) attention as objects of international legal concern. Cities should not be ignored.

In a global context characterized by increasingly disaggregated states and the rising prominence of global networks, the city is an undeniably potent geopolitical reality and force. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, this number will rise to 75 percent. Cities are sites of intercommunal conflict and violence of international legal relevance, as in Belfast and Sarajevo. They are sites of international civil society solidarity actions for domestic injustices, as the solidarity protests in Berlin and London for the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. They are increasingly effective starting points for international political strategies aimed at the achievement of international legal solutions to international problems, such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)’s Cities Appeal (which works to obtain cities’ endorsements of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) currently underway in several cities, including New York. They are sites of international institutional focus—United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11, for example, targets achievement of sustainable cities and communities. However, cities are not only places where change occurs. With increasing frequency, cities are becoming agents of international change.

Cities do not (and cannot) make international law. Cities do not (and cannot) be bound by international law. In that way, the status of cities remains dependent on sovereign states. Yet, acting through networks, cities are increasingly enforcing and promoting international norms and standards. Cities are pursued as partners by international actors. Therefore, though they are not fully independent actors, cities do play a role in the regulation of the international global community and their behavior is to some degree regulated by that community. Though slow to embrace the changing relationship, international legal academia recently began examining this emerging field. It warrants greater attention, particularly because the changing relationship is most prominent in international responses to climate change.

A brief recap: climate change is a global, existential concern on which action is urgently needed. Very few would dispute that creating sustainable communities is a worthwhile endeavor. However, there are real questions as to whether and how this will be accomplished—and whether it will be accomplished in time.

Of course, we’re already late. “Suicidal,” some, like United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres, have said. That time is running out is no secret or surprise. That climate change should be addressed by collective, international action should be by now apparent. Though coastal and island communities have borne the initial, human costs, climate change threatens life everywhere and forever. Further, environmental restoration is also inextricably linked to another existential, international concern—peace. Climate change is a politically and socially destabilizing force. It is no coincidence that, as the International Peace Institute notes, eight of the ten countries hosting the most multilateral peace operations personnel are located in areas highly exposed to climate change. Further, the concept of peace not only implies but demands the cultivation of belonging and harmony among all living things, including the environment. Ultimately, this reciprocal relationship between peace and environmental harmony means that failures in either sphere impede progress in both. Peacebuilding that fails to account for negative environmental impacts is short-sighted and, inevitably, impermanent. Efforts at environmental restoration that are not oriented towards peace are similarly ill-fated. Peace-oriented action on climate change is therefore required not only in the individual interest of each person, but also in the collective interest of all people.  

The collective interest of all people is and should be embodied in (preferably robust) international legal frameworks, like the Paris Agreement, which should serve as the basis for international action. Action in the individual interest occurs locally, typically realized in actions taken by cities. Therefore, the need for a link between local and international action is intuitive.

Yet there remains an immense gap in understandings of cities as actors in international law. The gap is perhaps partly the result of a failure of imagination. It is also partly the result of a rigid, traditional international legal formalism paired with a generally obdurate close-mindedness which pervades international institutions. This gap can prove difficult to bridge as it’s born of deeply ingrained, patriarchal, militarized notions about who should have power and who shouldn’t. As a result, the international community acknowledges the importance of cities, both implicitly and explicitly, but doesn’t quite know how to deal with them. Cities, for their part, have a great deal at stake and are often innovation hubs. Yet due to their informal and definitively subordinate role, cities operate in a kind of limbo. The gap in understanding inevitably slows progress on climate change. Lack of shared understanding on the appropriate limits of participation of cities means inclusion of cities in international discussions on climate change is erratic. It impedes information-sharing and the implementation of solutions. With such limited time left, any obstacle is destructive.

The recommendation that appears to make the most sense involves attributing to cities a conditional international legal personality according to limitations established by the international community acting through the United Nations. In this way, Member States could determine the degree and within which domains agreed-upon cities can make meaningful contributions. This would create a clear channel for communications and solutions to flow. However, the implications of such an approach have not yet been properly examined. The likelihood of exacerbating dysfunctional power relationships and hierarchies, for example, appears high. Further, city innovation is too frequently accredited to the mayors and bureaucracies who proffer solutions, rather than the community organizations, social movements, and grassroots activists of urban neighborhoods who develop them. International legal recognition of any formal identity for cities must reflect the reality that change moves from the bottom-up, for example, through conditioning accession to a formal identity on the creation of local, civic forums.

Ultimately, the way forward involves further research by the international legal community, building on the limited but solid foundation of work already out there, including by Gerald Frug and David J. Barron and through workshops held and initiatives launched by institutions like law schools. Above all, cities and international lawyers need to talk to one another. And fast. 

Author Biography: Sarah Kenny Werner is a senior moderator for the International Law and Policy Brief at The George Washington University Law School. She received her Master of Arts with Honours in International Relations from the University of Edinburgh. Prior to law school, she served as a consultant for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.