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Freedom From Fear: Still an Unmet Goal

In Being a World Citizen, Democracy, Human Development, Human Rights, NGOs, Solidarity, The Search for Peace, United Nations, World Law on July 27, 2018 at 6:13 PM

By René Wadlow

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States (1933-1945) in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union address to Congress presented the “Four Freedoms”, much of the world was at war: German troops were advancing in Europe as were the Japanese armies in China. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) said then, “I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world – assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discords in nations that are still at peace … And the assailants are still on the march, threatening other nations, great and small.” Territorial conquest and resistance against occupation was the focus of attention of much of the world’s population.

The United States was not yet at war and defined its position as neutral. Many Americans hoped to be able to stay out of the war, having been disillusioned by the continuation of “power politics” in Europe and Asia after the end of the First World War despite the creation of the League of Nations.

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In 1941, FDR was in the process of changing his own focus of attention from a “New Deal” President primarily concerned with the domestic consequences of the world-wide economic depression to becoming a world leader articulating liberal values for all the world’s population, and playing a major role in the founding of the United Nations (UN). Thus, in his presentation to Congress, he stressed world themes and called upon people to lift their eyes above the current aggression and control of land to focus upon the broader themes of a positive way of life.

The “Four Freedoms” presented to Congress were the essential need and right of every citizen of the world. As FDR put it “In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

  • The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
  • The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world.
  • The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understanding which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants –everywhere in the world.
  • The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.
    That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation”

Earlier in the address, FDR had outlined some of the steps needed to build the socio-economic framework for freedom from want:

  • Equality of opportunity;
  • Jobs;
  • Security;
  • The ending of special privilege for the few;
  • The employment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

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Many of those who would lead the struggle against colonialism in Asia and Africa heard in the Four Freedoms “everywhere in the world” the moral basis of their fight for equality and freedom. The address also inspired those in Latin America who felt the domination of United States economic power and who knew that political independence was only part of the story.

FDR held forth the possibility that the Four Freedoms would be attainable “in our own time and generation”. Thus, FDR calls us – especially those of us who were alive if not always politically active in 1941 – to analyze where we are today.

Freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion were relatively easy to incorporate into articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a Declaration which owes much to Eleanor Roosevelt, the first Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights during its drafting stage (1946-1948).

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Today, the UN Human Rights Council has Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression and freedom of conscience which, each year, studies accusations of violations. They enter into discussions with governments so that government practice meets international standards. There are effective nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) which monitor the situation and who provide detailed information to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Likewise, there are problems concerning government limitations on freedom of expression and concern with the degree of concentration of power in a few private world communication empires, but no government today openly questions the right to freedom of expression.

Freedom from want has been difficult to translate into reality, although in the speeches of government, NGO and business representatives, there is wide agreement that poverty is a bad thing. Nevertheless, a haunting fear for many in the world – probably about one third of the world’s population – is daily survival: finding food, clean water, reasonable shelter, adequate protection against illness. Much of the work of the UN and its Specialized Agencies as well as numerous NGOs is devoted to the effort to provide “freedom from want”. Yet more needs to be done if we are to shoulder the responsibility of ridding the world of the constant fear of want.

Freedom from fear has been even more difficult to translate into daily reality, in part because fear has an individual character linked to self-alienation and its accompanying anxiety.

In FDR’s original presentation freedom from fear was directly linked to disarmament and measures against aggression. Unfortunately, there has been little “disarmament dividend” since the end of the Cold War in 1990 symbolized by the signing in November 1990 of the “Charter of Paris on the New Europe”. While there is no longer a reason to fear a war between the USA and Russia which could have led to a nuclear exchange, world politics is still largely determined by the nuclear-weapon States: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. Military budgets remain high – that of the USA reaches amounts that are difficult to justify even if one believes that arms provide “security”.

There are many armed conflicts within a State. Trans-frontier arms trade remains high and increasingly involves private as well as government buyers and sellers. The tasks which FDR set out for us in 1941 are still with us. The UN, national governments and NGOs all have a role to play in establishing the Four Freedoms at the heart of daily life. Thus, we must direct our thoughts along the lines of cooperation and creativeness.

Prof. René Wadlow is President of the Association of World Citizens.

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