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Human Rights Day: 50 years on, age discrimination not sufficiently recognised

10 Dec 2015

Older people in Haiti march for their rights (c) Frédéric Dupoux/ HelpAge International

This year Human Rights Day celebrates the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Political, Civil, and Cultural Rights in 1966.

In the current economic and political climate, these two pieces of international human rights law are as relevant as the day they were adopted.

Looking back over the last 50 years, we have seen how the human rights enshrined within these two international covenants have been interpreted and applied to a wide range of contexts, from racism to sexism, and from the rights of children to the rights of people with disabilities. They have helped keep human rights relevant and to shine a spotlight on forms of discrimination that require particular attention.

A new focus on ageism and discrimination

And this is what is happening now in relation to ageism and discrimination in older age. Ageism, so often invisible and unrecognised, is now beginning to be recognised for the harmful social norm that it is.

In 2010, the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing was set up to identify gaps in the protection of older people's rights within the existing international human rights system and how to address them.

After six sessions, the working group has reached a consensus that there are serious human rights implementation and protection gaps that need to be urgently addressed.

During the same period we have seen the appointment of a new UN independent expert on the rights of older people and the development of regional human rights instruments focused on older people's rights in Europe, Africa and the Inter-American region.

But what do older people have to say?

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People carried out a consultation across 50 countries around the world, asking older people to if they were treated differently or discriminated against because of their older age.

Older people described living in a deeply ageist world where they are stereotyped as unable to make their own decisions, as incompetent, as expendable, as obsolete and as a burden on society. They explained how they are excluded from social, economic and political activities, and denied access to a range of goods and services.

Jumwa has faced discrimination in her village in Tanzania because of her age (c) Roopa Gogineni/HelpAge International

"I am considered a spent force with nothing left to contribute to society, that I have had my turn and should give way to the youth," said an older man from Uganda.

A resident from a nursing home in Serbia said: "In the home they terrorise us, they take all our money, they don't give us allowances and they constantly threaten that we'll be kicked out if we don't behave."

It is clear from the way older people describe their lives that the two international human rights covenants and subsequent international human rights treaties have failed to effectively address ageism and human rights in older age.

Why we still need a convention

Although the two covenants apply to everyone, their general nature is in fact a barrier to understanding and addressing the very unique and particular forms of discrimination we can be subjected to in our older age. For this we need something that specifically focuses on ageism, discrimination and denial of rights in older age.

A new international convention on the rights of older people is one way to do this. It has an advantage over other options because not only would it apply to all of us, no matter where we live, but it would also establish universal standards that challenge ageism and prohibit discrimination in older age.

It would clarify states' human rights obligations and, in doing so, enable us to better understand and claim our rights. It would provide a more effective way to hold governments to account for their human rights obligations.

Just as importantly, it would help change our attitudes towards older age, including our own, so we see it as a time when we continue to flourish rather than just a period of loss and decline. This would be transformative, and it would crucially address the shortcomings of the two international covenants which, for all their merits, have failed to improve the rights of people in older age.

Find out more about our work on rights.

Your comments

Lorraine Morris

Thank you for this article. Older people as well as children are muted groups in society. We not only need to hear them but for the benefit of everyone release their potential. Older age is not a period of decline it is time when contribution to society can be at its optimum. When released from earlier adult life concerns of raising a family etc then more community friendly trajectories can be pursued enabling wisdom of later years to support greater society cohesion. This is just one example.

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Author profile

Bridget Sleap
Country: U.K
Job title: Rights Policy Adviser

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