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The Most Important Cities in International Law

Published on June 8, 2015        Author: 

Professor Martens’ Departure, a biographical novel about the international lawyer Friedrich Martens by Estonian writer Jaan Kross, describes Martens’ first academic visit to “the West”. The visit takes place in 1869, and goes to Berlin, Amsterdam, and Brussels. This raises the question of where Martens should have gone today. Put differently, what cities are currently the most important in international law?

This question can be answered in different ways. Which cities house the best universities for international law? Which have the most influential State governments? Where are the most important international organisations and courts located? And where are the best private practitioners? I have tried to combine these four parameters into a single rating, to give a highly informal ranking of the top international law cities as of 2015. I welcome readers’ reactions to my attempt to identify international law’s most important cities.

Each parameter has a rating of 0 to 5. The assessments are my own, but are to some extent based on other sources.

  • “Academia” is based on the Quacquarelli Symonds, Academic Ranking of World Univiersities, and Times Higher Education university rankings, with adjustments that reflect my view of the universities’ strength in international law. Only five cities get a top rating for their universities: Cambridge UK, Cambridge MA (Harvard), New Haven (Yale), New York (mainly NYU), and Oxford.
  • The numbers for “IOs and courts” are based on my impression of the practical importance of each city’s institutions in international law. Six cities get a top rating: New York (the UN), The Hague (the most international courts including the ICJ, ICC as well as international organizations), Brussels (mainly the EU and NATO), Geneva (the WTO, the UN, and more), Washington (mainly ICSID, the IMF, and the World Bank), and Strasbourg (mainly the ECtHR and Council of Europe).
  • My views of “State power” are mostly based on GDP numbers, the size and sophistication of armed forces, and membership of important groups and organisations (especially permanent membership of the UNSC). Only Washington and Beijing get a top rating for state power. The US and China have the world’s largest active military forces, military budgets, and GDPs, as well as nuclear weapons and permanent membership of the UNSC.
  • “Private practice” is based on the Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners rankings. Having a separate section for “public international law” and/or “international arbitration” gives a high rating, while having “international arbitration” mentioned in the section on “dispute resolution” gives a somewhat lower rating. Only four cities, Washington, New York, Paris, and London, get a top rating.

The combined result is that Washington is the number one international law city, followed by New York and Paris, ahead of London, Geneva, and Brussels. The full results (for a selection of cities) are as follows:

Academia State power IOs and courts Private practice Total score
Washington 3 5 5 5 18
New York 5 0 5 5 15
Paris 3 4 2 5 14
London 4 4 0 5 13
Geneva 4 0 5 4 13
Brussels 2 2 5 4 13
The Hague 1 2 5 1 9
Frankfurt 2 0 3 3 8
Vienna 2 2 3 1 8
Berlin 2 4 0 1 7
Rome 1 3 2 1 7
Tokyo 3 3 0 1 7
Beijing 1 5 0 1 7
Luxembourg 1 1 4 1 7
Moscow 1 4 0 1 6
Nairobi 1 2 3 0 6
Strasbourg 1 0 5 0 6
Singapore 2 2 0 2 6
Cambridge UK 5 0 0 0 5
Cambridge MA 5 0 0 0 5
New Haven 5 0 0 0 5
Oxford 5 0 0 0 5
Copenhagen 2 2 0 1 5
Stockholm 2 2 0 1 5
Oslo 2 2 0 1 5


The results are also illustrated on this map and this graph. (The data is here.)

The results presented here are necessarily imprecise, subjective, and unscientific. Some particularly debatable points will be briefly noted:

  • Non-State governmental power is not considered. The city government of New York can be said to have more “power” than the State of Luxembourg, yet the latter gets a higher rating for State power. This is because Luxembourg is a State, and thus has a seat at the table in many of the places where international law is shaped, which New York does not.
  • International law academics at Cambridge UK and Oxford have a tradition for engaging in private work in addition to their academic activities. Both cities still get a 0 for private practitioners, so this has not been counted. Their private work can be seen as a part and result of their academic status, and, perhaps more importantly, the work seems to be done formally out of chambers located in London.
  • For all ratings, one good institution is considered better than many mediocre.
  • Cities’ closeness to other important cities is not taken into account (this would benefit e.g. Cambridge/Oxford/London, Hague/Amsterdam/Leiden, Paris/London, NY/Washington/New Haven/Cambridge MA, and Europe generally).
  • The locations of NGO headquarters are not taken into account. They are, at least to some extent, assumed to “follow the power” and thus be more present in the cities that are higher in the rankings.

The results may say something about the continued importance of geography despite the advance of globalisation, or perhaps about the alleged “Eurocentrism” or “Western bias” in international law. I leave the interpretation to the reader.

All the parameters are about things that are very slow and difficult to change. Any efforts by cities to improve their rankings will most likely be futile. Washington was indeed not built in a day. The rankings will probably remain as they are for the foreseeable future.

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15 Responses

  1. Sondre, very interesting work. But what about the Max Planck Institutes?


  2. Sondre Torp Helmersen Sondre Torp Helmersen

    Thanks, Lorand. Heidelberg should have a good score for academia, but not on the other parameters. I may however have been too strict with Luxembourg’s academia score…

  3. Dear Sondre,

    Undoubtedly, your post is going to generate a lot of chauvinistic comments. Here are mine 😉

    1°) Paris hosts the 3 (and not 2) IOs: the OECD, UNESCO and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

    2°) Depending on your standards, two other IOs could be taken into account for Paris :

    – the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (55 member States and 41 associates) based on the “Metre Convention” signed on 20 May 1875, and located in Sevres (in the Greater Paris Area) and only 3km from the city itself.

    – the “Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie” (57 member States and 23 observers) located in Paris.


  4. Anton Kleist

    Why have the state power factors for Cambridge (MA/Cambridgeshire), New Haven and Oxford been omitted?

  5. Really interesting effort! Thanks for doing it. Here’s my admittedly biased comment: I think perhaps The Hague deserves a bump up on the Academic and Private Practice score. Leiden University is 23rd in the QS World University Rankings for Law, and the international law faculty and teaching is partly based in The Hague, particularly the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies (and Leiden is 15 minutes away – I know “Cities’ closeness to other important cities is not taken into account” but… getting across NYC takes less time than this). There are a number of other valuable legal academic resources here as well, like the Peace Palace Library and the Hague Academy. And does the PCA and other work really only merit a 1 for private practice? They do issue $50 billion dollar rulings…

  6. RLS

    Why does Copenhagen get 0 on IO/Courts when its UN City is home to 9 (!) different UN organisations with more than 1200 staff?

  7. Sondre Torp Helmersen Sondre Torp Helmersen

    Dear Regis: The numbers for IOs are not raw counts of the number of IOs in each city, but rather an assessment of the relative importance of the IOs located in each city.
    Anton Kleist: I do not think anything has been omitted, those cities have a score of 0 because they are not the seat of any state government.
    Jens Iverson: It is indeed arbitrary that “New York” is one city while “The Hague” and “Leiden” are different cities. However if I were to draw my own boundaries (based on distance or travel time or something else), that would necessarily be arbitrary as well. Regarding the PCA, I have counted that as an institution, and not under private practice. Lawyers who argue before the PCA are (as far I know) mostly not based in The Hague.

  8. Jens Iverson

    Well, I had to try.

  9. Sondre Torp Helmersen Sondre Torp Helmersen

    RLS: I have only considered the locations of the headquarters of institutions/agencies/organisations, not of staff or field offices and the like. (This is admittedly another arbitrary choice.) As far as I know all the UN agencies that are represented in Copenhagen have their headquarters elsewhere, except for the UNOPS, which I do not think is an important actor in international law.

  10. Jordan

    They may not have international lawyers and courts, but clearly important for the spread of human rights to human dignity — SESEAME STREET

  11. Jordan

    ooopps SESAME STREET

  12. Very difficult to take seriously a ranking that doesn’t give London a “5” for academia — UCL, LSE, SOAS, Kings, Queen Mary, City, etc — but gives New York one…

  13. Sondre Torp Helmersen Sondre Torp Helmersen

    Kevin Jon Heller: First of all the ranking was not supposed to be taken seriously. However I can explain the idea behind giving New York a top score, which is that many of NYU’s international law professors have come from professorships at Harvard or Yale (while I have not found a similar flow from Oxbridge professorships to London). However I do not have complete data on this.

  14. Kevin Jon Heller


    I know — nor was my comment to be taken too seriously. (Though London really does deserve a 5!)

  15. Thomaz Santos

    Very interesting list, but, as a South American, I’m honestly disappointed that no city in the continent is present on the list, even though there are some cities that could have been at least mentioned in the list: there are established international law firms in places like São Paulo, for instance; both Montevideo and Assunción have regional and functional IOs or international courts (both within Mercosur); Quito, for instance, with the UNASUR headquarters, etc.
    Again, I think the power and academia criteria may have had a saying in all this, which, of course makes me even more sad. But maybe a broader list, with criteria that would encompass regional differences, would be a better way to demonstrate what are the most important cities in International Law.
    That being said, I would like once again to congratulate the author on the list and, most of all, the initiative of trying to establish some way objective criteria for us to analyze the entities that once upon a time were the most important subjects of International Law. Those were the days…