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Human Rights Day: Why we need a convention on the rights of older people

08 Dec 2011

An older campaigner on a march in Haiti. Much more needs to be done to better protect the rights of older people around the world.This year Human Rights Day celebrates the bravery of human rights defenders and the power of human rights activism around the world.

In 2011, older women and men in 57 countries from Albania to Zimbabwe demanded that their rights be protected as part of HelpAge's Age Demands Action campaign. They called for greater political participation in the drafting and monitoring of laws that affect them.

They called for an end to the age discrimination that prevents them from accessing services, such as bank loans. And they called for measures to ensure that their rights, to health or social security for example, are protected.

Important year for older people's rights

2011 has been an important year for older people's rights. The Organization of American States has agreed to draft a new regional convention protecting the rights of older people. And in Africa, a regional human rights law on older people's rights is being drafted.

This year also saw the first UN Secretary General's report devoted entirely to older people's rights, recognising the specific human rights challenges they face. The Special Rapporteur on the right to health also published a report on key issues regarding older people's right to health.

Also in 2011, the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) met three times. The OEWG was set up so UN Member States can review how human rights instruments address older people's rights, identify any gaps in protection and explore the feasibility of new instruments, such as conventions.

Debating a convention

The discussion at these meetings revolved around four main gaps in protection: information, monitoring, implementation and normative gaps. Whilst there was general agreement on the first three, the fourth caused controversy and debate.

Member States supporting a new convention (predominantly from Latin America) argue that existing human rights instruments fail to protect older people's rights in the same way as those of women and children. They argue this lack of specific human rights instruments on older people's rights is a normative gap that needs filling with a convention.

Other Member States (predominantly from the European Union) argue that such standard setting is not the answer.

The question is: why not?

Better protection of older people's rights is crucial

Older people are a population group with specific requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to guarantee their rights. However, existing human rights instruments do not adequately articulate what measures need to be taken nor clarify governments' obligations to protect older people's rights.

MIPAA, the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, cannot be relied on to fill these gaps. It is not a human rights instrument and therefore provides no clarification on states' human rights obligations towards older people. It is not enforceable and has no accountability or redress mechanisms, which are critical to the protection of human rights.

As a society, we recognise that denial of rights and discrimination based on gender, race or disability are totally unacceptable and that we need universal standards of behaviour and legal protection to prevent this. These standards are articulated in relevant human rights conventions.

So why don't we need similar standards against ageism and discrimination based on age?

Age discrimination and ageism are entrenched

Getting older is as much a part of being human as being a man or woman, or being from a particular ethnic group. Discrimination based on age is, therefore, as much a denial of our human rights as discrimination that is based on the colour of our skin or our sex.

Could it be that ageism is so deeply entrenched in society that we are not even aware that we are being ageist, let alone challenge it in others? This failure to recognise and act against ageism is no trivial matter. It results in loss of dignity, discrimination, and denial of rights.

Setting universal human rights standards that are then incorporated into national law would be a major step forward in ensuring ageism becomes as unacceptable as other forms of prejudice. A human rights convention explicitly prohibiting age discrimination and clarifying human rights obligations towards older people would provide the standards against which all action can be monitored, and those in authority held to account.

Standing alongside older activists

So as we celebrate the activism of the older women and men who are defending their rights, we must stand alongside them.

We must take the unique opportunity of the OEWG, which meets again in the summer of 2012, to challenge how society treats older people and to encourage more governments, particularly from Africa and Asia, to participate in the debate.

Finally, we should all push for specific human rights standards within a convention on the rights of older people that will protect our rights and maintain our dignity in later life.

What you can do

Your comments

Hasmy Agam

Excellent and very enlightening. I'll be following it closely and will contribute comments from time to time. Best regards. Hasmy

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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.