What does it mean to be free from want or fear?

Every year on December 10 the world celebrates Human Rights Day, marking the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — the world’s pre-eminent statement of the rights that everyone shares.

That document traces its roots to a January 6, 1941, speech by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, in which he insisted that everyone was entitled to four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

The first two freedoms are very straightforward. Everyone has the right to say or think as they please, and to worship or not worship as they please.

What about the other two freedoms?

Mary Kalemkerian, a human rights officer in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the freedom from want calls attention to issues of official corruption or certain groups being guaranteed more of their country’s resources than others.

Illustration of people practicing four freedoms (State Dept./Doug Thompson)
(State Dept./Doug Thompson)

“Unfortunately, given the way the world works, there will always be people who have more and people who have less. But when we talk about freedom from want, what we really want to look for is if people are being held down and denied access to basic needs,” she said.

Freedom from fear means that no one should be in fear of their government, its armed forces, police who are acting undemocratically, or even their neighbors.

“It means you can go to bed at night and you can expect that your home will still be standing the following day. It also means that you can plan far enough ahead to plant crops for the next harvest,” Kalemkerian said. Pervasive fear can “cut generations out of society” through malnutrition or being unable to send children to school. Put another way, she said, lives lived in fear miss out on countless opportunities and can never recover those losses, even if peace is restored.

Just four freedoms?

If Roosevelt were delivering his Four Freedoms speech today, “he probably would have come up with more than four basic freedoms,” she said. Even the 30 rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appear insufficient when you consider how human rights have evolved to include a focus on specific rights for specific groups, such as the struggle for accessibility for persons with disabilities.

“That being said, the world as we know it and the needs of humans as we know them still can fit into his four freedoms,” Kalemkerian said. “Maybe the simplicity of the four freedoms is something to bring us back to looking at what the core rights are and how to focus on ensuring those core rights are fulfilled.”

Stay tuned to the YALI Network to find out how to participate in our upcoming human rights course. Earn your certificate and share your stories of what you are doing to promote inclusiveness! Learn more and get involved at yali.state.gov/4all!

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