"The third is freedom from want . . . everywhere in the world."
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The first and second of the Four Freedoms articulated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his State of the Union speech on January 6, 1941, would have seemed familiar and comfortable to most listeners. After all, the freedom of speech and freedom of religion were two classic limits on the power of government – what we often call “negative” rights, or civil and political rights. Such rights were at the core of the American constitutional order, enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
As Roosevelt continued his speech, he identified two additional Freedoms of a very different character. The third of the Four Freedoms was “freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.” This was followed by freedom from fear. Unlike the first two Freedoms, these did not limit government interference with the individual; rather, they contemplated an affirmative government obligation to deliver these societal necessities to its citizens.
Although not rooted in the Bill of Rights in the same way as the previous Freedoms, the freedom from want would not have appeared as an entirely novel concept. It evoked the legislative development of a social safety net as part of Roosevelt’s domestic New Deal. Earlier in the speech, the President pointed to economic security as one of the foundations of a healthy democracy. He called for “Equality of opportunity for youth and others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few.” The rise of European fascism in the 1930s was at least partially a result of the dire economic conditions that prevailed during the early years of the Depression. Freedom from want, then, was not just an altruistic goal. It was also a strategy aimed at ensuring a stable and peaceful post-war world.
Indeed, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Natiosl General Assembly on December 10, 1948, it proclaimed that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Among the inalienable rights enumerated in the Universal Declaration were the right to social security (Ar. 22); the right to work (Art. 23); and the right to an adequate standard of living, “including food, clothing, housing, and medical care” (Art. 25).
While the freedom from want was articulated in these and other articles of the Universal Declaration, the Declaration itself was framed as being a “common standard of achievement,” rather than a binding legal document. Thus, the question of how to interpret and enforce these principles did not carry immediate urgency. As the human rights system matured, however, such issues became troublesome. Was a state truly under an obligation to guarantee jobs for all? What level of housing or medical care was “adequate?” Would these answers be viewed differently depending whether a state was poor or wealthy? Moreover, the discourse became colored by the politics of the cold war, as Soviet bloc states frequently advocated for these economic and social rights while Western states championed civil and political rights.
Ultimately, the effort to create a binding human rights framework was bifurcated, and two treaties emerged from the General Assembly in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The split has been viewed by many as unfortunate because it can lead to “prioritization” of rights (usually the view that the rights in the former treaty take priority over the latter). In any event, the two Covenants frame state obligations differently. Whereas the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights simply directs states to respect and ensure those rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights takes a different approach. It requires that each signatory “undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measure.” This language recognizes that, unlike, for example, the prohibition against torture, many economic and social rights cannot be immediately realized and are dependent on a state’s resources.
Following adoption of the Covenant there have been further attempts to clarify how freedom from want is to be understood and implemented. In 1999, for example, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights adopted a “general comment” on the right to food. It explained that the right to food meant the availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary and cultural needs of individuals, in a sustainable manner. The Committee went on to identify three levels of state obligation: first, a state cannot prevent existing access to food; second, it must protect against interference with an individual’s access by third parties; third, it must engage in activities intended to strengthen access to and production of food; and fourth, it must provide food if an individual is unable to secure food for reasons beyond their control.
In turn, these obligations beg the question of enforcement. It is not unusual for a court to find a person has been unlawfully detained and order them released from jail, but the same judge may be much less comfortable determining whether a state has met its obligations under the right to an adequate standard of living. And if violation is found, how does the court compel a state to implement legislative policies and allocate resources to fulfil its obligations, particularly if the state does not have the financial resources to do so? These are difficult issues that reflect as much about the judiciary as about the nature of economic and social rights, although courts in countries like India and South Africa have shown that courts can address such issues.
Of course, the complexity of interpreting and enforcing economic and social rights highlights the very existence and growth of these rights. “Freedom from want,” a principle articulated by an American president in 1941, has actually been incorporated into the international post-war order in the form of binding universal human rights. This, in itself, is quite remarkable.