Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Farrell: The Significance of Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech

January 6, 2016, marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of a significant milestone in the recognition and protection of human rights. On January 6, 1941, with war raging in Europe and the Pacific, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address to Congress. Although the United States was not yet fighting in the Second World War, Roosevelt argued against isolationism, warning that “the future and safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.” He went on to discuss the country’s policy of national defense, support for other democratic nations, and a just peace.
Near the conclusion of the speech, the President called for a post-war world founded upon “four essential human freedoms.” The first of these was freedom of speech and expression for all people. The second was the freedom for every person to worship in his or her own way. The third was freedom from want, which Roosevelt described as meaning a healthy peacetime life for the inhabitants of every nation. The fourth was freedom from fear, which he defined as a reduction in armaments to prevent future aggression between nations. The President stressed that these four freedoms were not a vision for the distant future, but a concrete plan for a better world in the present generation, and the antithesis of the “new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
The speech was – and is – significant. It suggested that world peace and security were inextricably tied to the protection of fundamental rights of all. In protecting these rights, it also went beyond familiar American Constitutional liberties (freedom of speech; freedom of religion) to include positive rights. Freedom from want implied that all people had a right to secure basic necessities. Freedom from fear implied all people held a right to live in a safe world.
Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms became a blueprint for a post-war international order concerned not just about nations, but also about individuals. This emphasis on the dignity of every human being was, perhaps, unsurprising in light of the atrocities perpetrated during the war. Shortly after Germany’s surrender and Roosevelt’s death, delegates from the Allied nations met in San Francisco in the summer of 1945 to establish the United Nations, whose purposed included reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights.” To that end, the U.N. General Assembly promptly created a Commission on Human Rights to define, promote, and protect human rights.
The Commission, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late President, worked to craft a statement of fundamental rights. On December 10, 1948, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, generally considered to be the foundation of the modern human rights system. Both the Declaration and the system that grew out of it were strongly influenced by Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. The Declaration’s preamble reveals this, proclaiming that “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Of course, these four essential freedoms have not existed in reality for many of people around the globe in the post-war years. Perhaps for this very reason, it is valuable for us to remind ourselves of their roots in the dark days of early 1941 as ideals for a secure and peaceful future.
Dr. Brian Farrell is Lecturer in Law and Associate Director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa. 

This short essay is one in a series celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Four Freedoms speech, and is cross-posted from the UICHR’s Four Freedoms webpage.

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