September 6, 2006

September 6, 2006 | Special Report on Democracy and Human Rights

Reclaiming the Language of Freedom at the United Nations

* This paper is a compilation of several Heritage research papers; to view in entirety, please download the PDF


James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Lee A. Casey is an attorney in the Washington office of Baker and Hostetler, LLP. He served in the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice during the Administration of Ronald Reagan and in the Office of Legal Counsel under President George H. W. Bush. He is an expert member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.

Helle C. Dale is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies and Deputy Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

Jennifer A. Marshall is Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

David B. Rivkin is an attorney in the Washington office of Baker and Hostetler, LLP. He served during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush Administrations in the Office of the Counsel to the President in the White House and in the Departments of Justice and Energy. He is an expert member of the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.

Grace V. Smith is a former Research Assistant in the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

Janice A. Smith is Special Assistant to the Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. She served in the U.S. State Department Bureau of International Organization Affairs from 2002 to 2005.

Heritage Foundation research assistants David Gentilli and William Schirano, Heritage Foundation intern Rachel Bovard, and Georgetown Public Policy Institute graduate student Todd Schmidt assisted in the preparation of this report.


Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.

Chapter 1: International Law and the Nation-State at the U.N.
Lee A. Casey and David B. Rivkin, Jr.

Chapter 2: Economic and Political Rights at the U.N.
Helle C. Dale

Chapter 3: Human Rights and Social Issues at the U.N.
Jennifer A. Marshall and Grace V. Smith

Chapter 4: The Muddled Notion of "Human Security" at the U.N.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Janice A. Smith


The American tradition of promoting and protecting freedom and human rights is long, going back to the first colonists who came here seeking religious freedom. A strong spirit of individual freedom and responsibility, of human rights and civil rights, imbues America's founding documents and laws. From their recognition of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to their guarantee of freedom of speech, worship, and assembly and even the right to have a say in how they are governed, these documents are a historic affirmation of the inherent dignity of every man, woman, and child.

Americans' long record of upholding this tradition is rooted in the understanding that the issues of freedom that invigorate their lives are not solely American. People from every nation assimilate here because our tradition of freedom speaks to them. As Freedom House's annual surveys show, these "universal aspirations of the human heart" are being embraced by millions more people around the world each year.

Yet at the United Nations -- an organization established to enshrine this universal understanding of freedom and human rights -- the very idea of freedom is being vigorously challenged and even discouraged. A just-released U.N. report on trade and development tells the developing world that policies promoting the freedom to trade have failed them. An international convention adopted in 2005 declares that states can limit their citizens' freedom to access and experience other cultures, and a treaty on children's rights establishes that parents do not have the right to monitor and control what their children do or are exposed to.

This topsy-turvy view of freedom and rights not only has put the United States at a distinct disadvantage at the United Nations, but also has undermined the credibility of the U.N. itself with the American public. The American idea of freedom is more and more poorly understood, not just by foreign countries and diplomats, but by some Americans as well. For years, the U.S. has been on the defensive as others have asserted a monopoly on what terms such as "security," "rights," and "freedom" mean in U.N. activities.

The erosion of this venerable tradition of freedom at the U.N. and other international organizations has increased rapidly since the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, even talking about freedom is discouraged in the halls of the United Nations, described in private conversations with foreign diplomats as being too ideologically loaded and somehow "pro-American." The language of freedom is getting lost in the debate, and rights of people around the world are suffering because of it.

This is a tragedy. Freedom is fundamental to everything the United Nations hopes to do. Without freedom, there can be no lasting peace, no sustainable economic growth, and no respect for human rights. The loss of the language of freedom at the U.N. has reduced its political and social agenda to a hodgepodge of demands on governments to provide social services and protect manufactured "rights" of groups. While the demands always exceed the abilities of governments to meet them, the ensuing confusion over what rights are and what governments should properly do to protect them has wrecked the U.N.'s effectiveness and credibility.

As the leader of the free world, the United States must reinvigorate the American tradition of freedom at the U.N. and other international organizations, with everything this implies. It is a strong historical and universal tradition that must be preserved, because it has given people in every region of the world the best workable definition of freedom in action for the past century.

Properly understood, freedom is indivisible. It is economic, political, and social freedom. You cannot restrain freedom in one sphere and hope to secure it forever in another. But freedom -- or, more properly named, liberty -- is not license. Rather, it encompasses a broad spectrum of rights and responsibilities. And national sovereignty is critical to achieving and protecting those rights.

The U.S. must make every effort to reclaim this proper understanding of freedom in its diplomacy if it hopes to spread freedom abroad. American diplomats, policymakers, and civil society stakeholders must make every effort to promote a clear idea of what America means by freedom and all of its associated virtues -- whether the issue under deliberation at the U.N. is human rights, civil rights, social justice, human security, sustainable development, or a matter of international law.

This Special Report is designed to assist them in that endeavor. Its chapters address four areas in which we believe that America's tradition of freedom is most at risk.

In "International Law and the Nation-State at the U.N.," lawyers Lee A. Casey and David B. Rivkin, Jr., map the growing chasm between America's understanding of freedom, sovereignty, jurisdiction, and international and humanitarian law and interpretations being advanced at the U.N. and by many Europeans. International law, they explain, is fundamentally different in conception and application from domestic law. It is made by agreements, not by legislation. There is no inherent legislative authority in the entity known as the international community. Nor is sovereignty some abstract concept that can be redefined by that inchoate community. For these reasons, states are free to enter or leave international agreements as they perceive it in their national interest to do so. And no state can be legally bound by treaties it has not ratified.

In "Economic and Political Rights at the U.N.," Helle C. Dale, Director of our Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, describes and defends the principles of economic and political freedom that have proven themselves time and again -- from the development of free-market economies to the spectacular failure of socialist and centrally planned systems. Yet elites who supported those systems refuse to acknowledge defeat. They use forums like the U.N. to achieve what their systems could not. In this context, getting the terminology of economic and political freedom right in our discourse with other nations at the U.N. is crucial for correcting that socialist bias.

In "Human Rights and Social Issues at the U.N.," Jennifer A. Marshall, Director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at Heritage, explains how American culture has influenced our understanding of freedom. Our heritage of strong civil society institutions -- family, religious congregations, and private associations -- reinforces the country's founding ideas about liberty and human dignity. Other nations, however, do not share this heritage. That is why so much of what the U.N. is doing is no longer preserving peace and good relations, but building an international administrative "state" and giving it the authority to rule on a wide range of social issues, from education to health, that traditionally have been the domain of states. Protecting that domain from social policymaking at the U.N. requires a deeper understanding of the principles of federalism, individual freedom and rights, and sovereignty.

Finally, in "The Muddled Notion of 'Human Security' at the U.N.," National Security Fellow James Jay Carafano and Janice A. Smith, who worked in the Bush Administration on international organization affairs, expose efforts to wrest sovereign decision-making authority on security away from states. Human security is touted as superior to national security in meeting the needs of the world's peoples. The new agenda seeks to "guarantee" everything from a minimum income, access to food, and protection from diseases and disasters to protection from violence and the loss of traditions and values. Yet the expansion of the very definition of security undermines the fundamental principles of sovereignty, accountability, and national security that undergird not only freedom for Americans, but freedom around the world. International efforts should help states to become better guarantors of security and liberty for their citizens, not undermine them.

We believe this Special Report will be a useful guide for American diplomats and policymakers across the U.S. government as they engage other countries on matters before international forums. We also believe it will be useful for non-governmental organizations that work with and at the U.N.; for policy advocates who are working to promote freedom and human rights and protect U.S. interests; for policy experts who want a better understanding of how to view the "soft" issues of human rights and freedom generally; and for journalists and reporters who seek a better understanding of U.S. decisions at the U.N.

Americans understand that freedom is neither freely gained nor guaranteed and that its triumph in history is not inevitable. We must all remain vigilant in protecting freedom, for as President Ronald Reagan advised, it is never more than one generation from extinction.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D.
Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
The Heritage Foundation
September 2006

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