“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.”
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt
I am delighted, as part of the University of Iowa Centre for Human Rights’ 75th anniversary celebration of the Four Freedoms Speech, to consider Roosevelt’s fourth and final freedom – freedom from fear. David Keane pondered whether the four freedoms ought to be considered in terms of hierarchy and he suggested that freedom of speech might come out tops – not just because it is the first of the freedoms but because freedom of speech is a “gateway” right. This may be so but freedom from fear outranks the others in its own ways. On the one hand, freedom from fear was the most ambitious of Roosevelt’s four (although ‘freedom from want’ puts up quite the challenge). Freedom from fear represented the aspiration of an international prohibition on aggression or, indeed, the “human right to peace”. There is though another way of reading Roosevelt’s fourth freedom. Freedom from fear was in fact the leitmotif of the entire speech. Fear is invoked ambiguously – equivocally, even – both as a provocation, to rally public support and to justify American intervention in the war, and as a promise, of future freedom. In other words, Roosevelt was telling the American public – in order to enjoy this freedom, in order to secure freedom from fear, we must go to war. From a rhetorical perspective, by neatly and rhythmically rounding off the four freedoms, freedom from fear represented the alliterative crowning glory of Roosevelt’s speech and his call to intervention.
As Shane Darcy and Brian Farrell have noted, Roosevelt’s four freedoms sowed the seeds for the post-war international order and also played a sizeable role in the development of the international system of human rights. So where, beyond the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, does freedom from fear feature in this international system? What does freedom from fear even mean? And, perhaps more importantly, how are we doing in the achievement of this freedom?
Freedom from aggression is not as aurally evocative but that is essentially what Roosevelt meant by freedom from fear. His vision, on a surface reading of the speech, was an end to aggressive wars precipitated by an end to the production of arms. The Atlantic Charter, the joint declaration signed by Churchill and Roosevelt in Newfoundland in August 1941, articulating their war aims and their vision of a post-war international order, incorporated, and elaborated on, the idea of freedom from fear. Principle six envisaged: “…after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny … a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want”. Principle eight contemplated a ban on the use of force in international relations and the disarmament of aggressive nations: “… all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers …. pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security … the disarmament of such nations is essential.”
The United Nations Charter – conceived of and drafted in the throes of the war – codifies a system of collective security, underpinned by the infamous ban, under Art 2(4), on the threat or use of force in international relations. The Charter specifies exceptions to this ban. Under article 42, the Security Council is authorised to take measures “as may be necessary to restore international peace and security”. Under article 51, Member states are endowed with “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member”. More recently, in 2010, following a fraught process, the Rome Statute of the permanent International Criminal Court (established in 1998) was amended to include the crime of aggression. The Rome Statute defines in detail an act of aggression as a manifest violation of the UN Charter and provides a jurisdictional regime for the prosecution of that crime. The limitations to and the challenges inherent in the UN Charter use of force regime are well known. These range from interpretative indeterminacy around the scope and meaning of “armed attack” and of self-defense to endless debates around the legality or propriety of humanitarian intervention. The permanent membership of the Security Council, invested as it is with the authority to determine threats to international peace and security, exacerbates the legal and political contestation. For interpretative and geopolitical reasons, it is easy to see that the prosecution of the crime of aggression will be a challenge.
Do, then, the UN Charter and the crime of aggression fulfil Roosevelt’s aspiration of freedom from fear? Certainly, Roosevelt would have applauded the international prohibition and criminalisation of acts of aggression. He did not, however, only advocate a legislative ban on aggression. He saw a direct link between the production of arms and the use of force. His vision was, arguably, not just for a ban on the use of force but for a ban on the production of weapons in order to deter or prevent aggression. The United Nations does promote nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation as well as the disarmament of biological, chemical and conventional weapons. The Office for Disarmament Affairs admits to some of the challenges it faces – political and technical. But let’s be clear, the biggest challenge to disarmament is economic. Weapons are big business.
The disarmament paradox was explicit in Roosevelt’s speech. He asked Congress outright for the authority to manufacture additional munitions and war supplies for the Allies and for American defense. There may be little doubt today about the justification for this supply of “ships, planes, tanks, guns” or the propriety of American involvement in the war. But this is the point – just war is always in the eye of the beholder. The beholder is rarely the aggressor. Weapons’ manufacture is always for defense. Roosevelt’s speech was not a call to global disarmament nor was it an absolute appeal to end aggression – it was an appeal to end ‘their’ access to arms, their aggression. From a political, military or foreign policy perspective, this, for many, is not controversial – of course a nation will justify its own defense and its resort to war. However, this speech is memorialised for the four freedoms that Roosevelt envisaged. Those four freedoms may now be reflected in international human rights law. The strategy of Roosevelt’s speech is also an enduring one, however. Just as in 1941, today, freedoms and rights are instrumentalised, and reflected, in justifications for armed conflict, self-defense and military/humanitarian intervention.
Freedom from fear was one of the ‘ends’ of Roosevelt’s policy. But fear was also one of his means to achieve this ‘end’. His speech opened with the spectre of the unprecedented threat – “No previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today”. It culminated in an invocation of the “supremacy of human rights everywhere”. To bridge that gap, it was necessary to fight for rights, literally.
Without a doubt, Roosevelt’s words had impact. But freedom from fear, and what it represents, was then, and remains, a slippery concept.
Michelle Farrell is a senior lecturer in law at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool. She is also currently a Fellow in Residence in the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralis, University of McGill.
 See William A. Schabas, ‘Freedom from Fear and the human right to peace’ in David Keane and Yvonne McDermott, The Challenge of Human Rights: Past, Present and Future (Edward Elgar, 2012) 36 for a discussion of freedom from fear as the forgotten human right to peace.