When Will We “Mainstream” Our Future? – The Rights of Older Persons
There is a lack of widespread discussion and engagement with the rights of older persons. It is staggering how little attention this issue receives when every one of us is set to age and reach such a time in his or her life. According to a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the global share of older persons has already increased from 9.2% in 1990 to 11.7% in 2013, and it is projected to reach 21.1% by 2050. Notably, old age not only renders individuals more poverty-averse, it also leads to discrimination and deprivation from basic human rights.
The Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People, a network of over 115 civil society organizations, ran a study with participants from over 48 countries. They gave older persons a chance to express their opinions on discrimination and human rights in old age. Some respondents found that their age granted them respect in society. However, many others were distraught by the lack of care and dignity that they are made to live with. A female respondent from the United States aged between 70 and 79 years old said, “There is a general ageism still in our culture that devalues old age relative to youth, that expects older adults to be decrepit and demented.” Participants also identified the human rights and principles they believe are denied to them. The list is exhaustive, which implies a need for systematic and comprehensive change, and it includes the rights to: life, autonomy and independence, self-fulfilment, family life, education, health, information, work, adequate standard of living, access to justice, and many more. Older individuals around the globe feel this lack every day. An Argentinian man pointed out that, “At my age we are not able to get a decent bank credit or start paying health insurance just because we are more than 65 years old.”
There have been steps by international institutions to bring the human rights of older persons to the fore, but the going has been slow. In 2002, the Second World Assembly on Ageing established the Madrid Declaration and International Plan of Action. It calls for actions at all levels, including the national and international, based on three priority directions: older persons and development, advancing health and well-being into old age, and ensuring enabling and supportive environments. According to the declaration, mainstreaming this issue in the global agenda is essential.
More recently, the UN General Assembly established the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing through Resolution 65/182 on 21 December 2010. Its mandate has a special relevance and validity since it is the only body within the UN established to discuss the best way to increase the protection of human rights of older people. The debate amongst member states in past sessions has revolved around two elements: the effectiveness of existing mechanisms in protecting the rights of older persons, and the need for a specific legal instrument to protect the rights and dignity of older persons. To this end, UNGA Resolution 67/139, which was adopted on 20 December 2012, called for a move towards a comprehensive and integral international legal instrument and requested that the Working Group consider proposals to establish it.
This past July I attended the Sixth Session of the Open-Ended Working Group during which the hopes for a legal instrument, such as a convention, remained slim. Member states shared their national practices and advances in protecting the rights of older persons through their national acts and laws. Civil society representatives were also active members in the debate. Many called for a convention in order to compel a global paradigm shift and to reach best practices through capacity building. There was however, on-going controversy as to the need for a convention to protect the rights of older persons. On one side of the divide, championing the primacy of such a legal instrument, were many developing nations, especially from Latin America. While, on the other side stood developed, mostly European, nations. The representative of Argentina, for example, asked why the ageing did not deserve the same coverage and protection through a convention as women and children. Meanwhile representatives from the EU focused their arguments on needed efforts to implement already existing legal instruments to end all kinds of discrimination.
There are already existing obligations under the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and even the International Labour Organization (ILO) which cover older persons. Although older persons’ rights may be partially covered in these legal instruments, that is not enough for the type of paradigm shift needed to effectively uphold global elderly rights. Identifying loopholes in enacted frameworks does not have the same clout as a convention dedicated solely to the protection of older persons. Just like CEDAW was a major step forward in acknowledging women’s rights to be both separate from and integral to human rights, a convention for the protection of the rights of older persons would lead to better global awareness of the needs of its aging population.
Engaging with the possibility of a separate convention for older persons allows for changes in society. The active conversation and awareness which drafting a convention entails would help protect the dignity and rights of the ageing population at the individual and community levels. We may even be able to participate in shifting the worldview from one that perceives older individuals as passive actors, to one where they are active participants in society.
Photos courtesy of Flickr Commons
 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Ageing 2013 (New York: United Nations, 2013), available from: http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/WorldPopulationAgeing2013.pdf
Bridget Sleap, In Our Own Words: What Older People Say About Discrimination And Human Rights In Older Age, Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People (2015), 5.
 Ibid., 3.
 See the UN Open-ended Working Group website for records of the six meetings, http://social.un.org/ageing-working-group/