Opening Plenary: The Four Freedoms Turn 70: Embracing an Integrated Approach to Human Rights

By Posner, Michael H. | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Opening Plenary: The Four Freedoms Turn 70: Embracing an Integrated Approach to Human Rights


Posner, Michael H., Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


This address was delivered at 9:30 a.m., Thursday, March 24, by Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State.

Seventy years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his famous Four Freedoms speech as he was steeling the United States for war. Three years later he elaborated further on his vision of human rights and security in a State of the Union address delivered at a moment when the democratic way of life was under assault around the world.

Roosevelt framed the war aims broadly in terms of core American values. And he warned that "enduring peace cannot be bought at the cost of other people's freedom." Roosevelt's premise was that our liberty rested on four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. He identified freedom of speech and freedom to worship as core civil and political rights, just as we do now. He defined "freedom from fear" as a reduction in arms, so as to diminish our collective destructive capabilities--and that's a component of the U.S. National Security Strategy to this day. And with the indelible phrase--"freedom from want"--Roosevelt linked the liberty of our people with their basic economic and social well-being. This concept is being echoed today on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and other Arab cities.

Roosevelt concluded with words that still guide us today: "Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere."

There are many ways to think about what should or should not count as a human right. Perhaps the simplest and most compelling is that human rights reflect what a person needs in order to live a meaningful and dignified existence. It is the core belief in the supreme value of human dignity that leads us, as Americans, to embrace the idea that people should not be tortured, discriminated against, deprived of the right to choose their government, silenced, or barred from observing the religion of their choosing. As President Obama has made clear, it is this same belief in human dignity that underlies our concern for the health, education, and well-being of our people.

Human dignity has a political component and an economic component--and these are inexorably linked. Participation, transparency, and accountability are valuable not just because they contribute to the dignity of the governed, but because they enhance the responsiveness of those who govern.

Amartya Sen, who spoke here last night, has spotlighted the connection between freedom of speech, democracy, and good governance. He said elections, uncensored news reporting, and unfettered public criticism prompt governments to address hunger. Freedom to criticize and make demands "promote the political incentive for governments to be responsive, caring and prompt."

In the Middle East, the public understands the connection between corruption and impunity on one hand, and lack of freedom and economic opportunity on the other. That why the story of a Tunisian vegetable vendor, who was so humiliated by local authorities that he set himself on fire, resonated around the region.

It was recognition of the importance of human dignity that guided Eleanor Roosevelt as she led the effort to persuade the United Nations to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. She used FDR's words as a moral cornerstone for the international legal and institutional regimes that would later arise--regimes that address economic social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights.

Today I want to reexamine those moral cornerstones--the Four Freedoms, as Roosevelt defined them--and talk about three things. First, since I have just returned from Egypt where I accompanied Secretary Clinton last week, I want to discuss how the principles embodied in the Four Freedoms are resonating in Egypt today. Second, I want to discuss how President Obama and Secretary Clinton are applying those universal principles through U. …

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