Nascent Spirit of New York or Ghost of Arms Control Past?: The Normative Implications of the Arms Trade Treaty for Global Policymaking

Does the 2013 United Nations (UN) Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) represent what Costa Rica's UN Ambassador called a nascent ‘Spirit of New York’ – a change in the rules of the arms control game in favor of humanitarianism and human rights? Or does it represent business as usual – the ghost of Arms Control past? We are convinced by neither the messianic claims of the ATT's most overheated boosters nor the doom-saying of its most ardent detractors. Rather we argue here that in both the ATT negotiation process and the treaty text, ‘norm entrepreneurs’ like NGOs, Middle Powers and small states have created space for global policy making based on humanitarian and human rights considerations. However, the negotiation and treaty also represent a melding of this ‘maximalist’ human security–civil society approach with UN General Assembly concerns about small arms proliferation and the ‘minimalist’ strategic and commercial interests of the major arms exporters. This hybrid pathway to the treaty's adoption offers possibilities for future global policy making on disarmament and arms control as well as other humanitarian issues.

The ATT strengthens nascent human security norms, offering new legal-binding provisions requiring states to take into account human rights and humanitarian law in assessing approval of arms transfers.
The ATT is the first international treaty recognizing the term Gender-Based Violence – essentially recognizing it as a security concern.
The ATT negotiation process – a hybrid of traditional consensus-based arms control decision making, openness to NGOs and final approval by UN General Assembly majority vote – offers a possible precedent for breaking deadlocked disarmament processes.