Universal Human Rights

Fifty years after Franklin Roosevelt's `Four Freedoms' speech, and 200 years after the Bill of Rights, their principles are influencing the world

LAST month marked the 50th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's famed ``Four Freedoms'' address to Congress. And the year 1991 commemorates the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights appended to the United States Constitution. Each of these two documents, separated by 150 years, has had a profound influence in the international arena. Speaking on Jan. 6, 1941, President Roosevelt identified the traditional freedoms of speech and expression as the first freedom, of religion as the second. He then extended the list to include two modern concerns - freedom from want and freedom from fear. On each of these ideals, FDR emphasized the refrain - ``everywhere in the world.''

Traditional freedom of expression and conscience are, of course, spelled out in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. They reflect classical protection of the individual from government restraint. By contrast, 20th-century liberal thought insisted that these 18th-century freedoms be supplemented by meaningful freedom from want and fear. In Roosevelt's words, freedom from fear ``translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction in armaments to such a point ... that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor - anywhere in the world.''

President Roosevelt concluded by expressing confidence that his was not a vision of a distant millennium, but ``is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our time and generation.'' Fifty years later, our appraisal must be considerably less optimistic. Yet the ideals set forth by the Four Freedoms address, as well as those proclaimed by the Bill of Rights, have had an enduring impact on international thinking.

The most obvious example of this influence is found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. While the purpose of the American Bill of Rights was to limit the new government from encroaching on the political rights of individuals, the Declaration of Human Rights had a broader scope, the ``recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.''

The preamble to the Universal Declaration celebrates the ``advent of a world in which human beings should enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want'' - clearly reflecting FDR's Four Freedoms address. The preamble is followed by 30 articles spelling out specific political, social, and economic rights. Parallels to certain provisions of the US Bill of Rights can be found, although in somewhat different terminology.

YET the contrasts between the US Bill of Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights are notable. The greater scope and detail of the latter document make it nearly four times the length of the former. The UN document draws on the value systems of several cultures, even though American ideas, both earlier and modern, appear strong.

The general goal of ``freedom from want'' is spelled out in the UN Declaration by delineated ``rights'' that might not have been anticipated by even many New Dealers - the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work, and to protection against unemployment; equal pay for equal work; the right to form and to join trade unions; the right to leisure; and, finally, the most ambitious of all: ``Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.''

Clearly, the world has not achieved universal acceptance of individual political freedoms, much less the ambitious social and economic aspects of ``freedom from want.'' Yet we live in a world closer to the ideals of the four freedoms than in 1941. Freedom of expression and religion are more widespread than a half-century ago, and there have been hopeful signs for aspects of freedoms from want and fear. A few examples:

The UN's umbrella organizations and several private groups have succeeded in focusing attention on basic issues of human rights. For 45 years, UNICEF has combatted malnutrition, disease, and illiteracy, while committing millions of dollars to international emergency-relief efforts.

The Helsinki Accords of 1975 were the first in a line of negotiations resulting in the recent Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, designed to scale back armed forces of the 34 members.

National courts have at times invoked international law, as happened in 1984 when an American appeals court, in a case involving an incident in Paraguay, noted ``the right to be free from torture ... as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.''

Private relief efforts of such groups as the International Red Cross and CARE have been enormously successful in meeting people's basic human needs. Amnesty International, the Soviet-born Helsinki Watch Group, and other international watchdogs have vigilantly monitored human rights around the world.

Such advances fall short of the sweeping goals envisaged by many in 1941 (and 1791). Assertions in parchment cannot guarantee the goals proclaimed. But they help perpetuate the ideal of human rights universally.

In Thomas Jefferson's last letter, penned less than two weeks before his death on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he wondered about the legacy of the document he had drafted. ``May it be to the world,'' Jefferson wrote, ``what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to ... assume the blessings and security of self-government.... All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.... These are grounds of hope for others.''

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