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Air of expectation at first session of new UN working group on older people's rights

19 Apr 2011

Isabel, 73, from Bolivia holds a sign saying 'Yes to older women's rights'Today was the first session of the newly created Open Ended Working Group on Ageing at the UN in New York.

This new UN working group was established at the 2010 UN General Assembly to look at strengthening the protection of older people's rights.

Member States, particularly from Latin America and the Caribbean, have been pushing for a UN discussion on the possibility of new human rights mechanisms - such as a convention - on the rights of older people.

But not all Member States agree we need a new convention, so the working group also has a wider mandate.

This week it is discussing the existing international human rights framework in relation to the human rights of older people, looking at possible gaps and how best to address them, including the possibility of a convention.

It's official

This morning, there was an air of expectation, at least among the NGOs present.

This is the first time an official process has been set up for UN Member States to discuss how to better protect older people's rights, even though Argentina put forward the idea of a convention on older people's rights back in 1948.

It was an interesting morning. First up was the election of members of the bureau (an organising committee) from each region of the UN.

Eastern Europe and Africa Member States have still not elected members to the bureau and we need to encourage them that this is an issue of great importance to them.

Hearing members' views

Next were the opening statements from Member States. This was a great chance for us to get a better idea of where different member states stand on the issue.

17 countries spoke which at first I thought was very disappointing (there are 192 member states at the UN). But I was later told not to be too worried as this is a new area for many Member States; at this point some are still developing positions and some just want to hear what others have to say.

Those that did speak unanimously welcomed the setting up of the OEWG and pledged to support its work.

Canada and the UK looked forward to exchanges of information and best practice.

We heard about existing legislation against age discrimination in Australia and the US.

China urged the OEWG to take a step by step process to build consensus amongst Member States who, at the moment, do not all agree that there should be a convention.

Hungary, who made a statement on behalf of the EU, warned against retrogressive measures in response to the financial crisis that disproportionately affect older people, such as changes to pension and healthcare systems.

And we heard about various welfare programmes in other countries such as Pakistan.

Signs of encouragement

There were also some particularly encouraging comments.

Argentina and Chile gave strong statements in support of a new convention. The Republic of Korea spoke about the need to narrow the gap between the existing human rights frameworks and the reality of older people's lives. The US said that it was ready to consider the advisability of further actions to uphold older people's rights.

This type of language may seem overly bureaucratic but it does signal an open mindedness that is really encouraging.

A chance to state our case

UNFPA was the only UN agency to make a statement - they focused on the review of existing human rights frameworks they are doing and the review of MIPAA that they are carrying out with HelpAge and other NGOs.

NGOs got a chance to make statements at the end. We were not sure how much time we would be given and so the first was a joint statement on behalf of the coalition of NGOs who are working together on older people's rights.

I then made a statement on behalf of HelpAge emphasising the need to listen to what older women and men themselves have identified as the key rights they want to be better protected.

I used examples from the meeting of older people's leaders in Asia in 2010 and the 2010 Age Demands Action campaign.

The last statement of the day was from the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) that highlighted the key issue of elder abuse that so often remains invisible.

Tomorrow we move on to look at the existing international human rights system in more detail.

Your comments

German A. Bravo-Casas

Excellent summary. I will visit the site very often again.

Lok Bhattarai

Good to know that there is an increasing awareness on the issue and that Argentina and Chile are in the front-line to support for the cause of the convention on the rights of older people

edilia camargo

I fully agree with German, and hope HAI will continue to give accurate inputs coming from all regions to this new created OEWG at the UN

Sheila Malkind

Interesting info, indeed. I very much would like to be involved with this organization, as I have been showing films on aging -- documentaries & features, from countries around the world for almost 15 years at various venues such as senior centers, libraries, universities, etc. I have a lot to offer in the way of films that inspire professionals as well as older adults how to live meaningfully as we age. Sheila Malkind, www.legacyfilmseries.com;wwwlegacyfilmfestivalonaging.org

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Author profile

Bridget Sleap
Country: UK
Job title: Senior Rights Adviser, HelpAge International

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.