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Protecting the rights of older people: Ten reasons why we need to act

20 Aug 2012

Age Demands Action campaigners from all over the world asked their governments to send representatives to the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG).On 21 December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly established an Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) with a mandate to identify gaps in the protection of the rights of older people and ways in which these gaps can be addressed.

This week, the third session of the OEWG will take place in New York. This session will discuss gaps in the protection of older people's rights and how to address them in a number of areas, including: violence and abuse, age discrimination, autonomy, independent living and healthcare, social security and access to resources, as well as access to justice. 

Based on our research and work with older people, we believe that the existing human rights framework has completely failed older people and urgently needs to be improved. We have written a call to action giving ten reasons why the Working Group should recommend the strengthening of legally-binding standards on the rights of older people and the development of a new protection regime.

This call to action has been endorsed by a broad and diverse range of nearly 100 civil society organisations:

1. The number of older people worldwide is growing at an unprecedented pace.

People over 60 years of age make up an ever greater percentage of the world population. Today, 760 million people are over 60; by 2050, that number will have risen to two billion. Older people already outnumber young children (aged 0-4) and will outnumber children under 15 by 2050. This trend is global. Today, 65% of people over 60 live in less developed countries; by 2050, 80% will.

2. There is no dedicated protection regime for older people's rights.

While the rights of women, children, prisoners and people with disabilities are all protected through special international conventions or standards, no such standards exist for older people despite their specific vulnerability to human rights violations. 

3. There are clear gaps in protections available to older people in existing human rights standards.

Only one of the existing human rights instruments explicitly prohibits age discrimination. This has resulted in a failure in many countries to address the multiple forms of discrimination older people face. Specific provisions regarding issues like elder abuse, long-term and palliative care, are also absent from existing human rights standards.

4. Older people's rights are neglected in the current human rights framework.

United Nations and regional human rights bodies have largely ignored the rights of older people. For example, of 21,353 recommendations by the Human Rights Council during the first round of its peer to peer human rights review process of all United Nations Member States (known as Universal Periodic Review), only 31 recommendations referred to "elderly" people or people of "old age".  

5. Age discrimination and ageism are widely tolerated across the world.

Negative ageist attitudes towards old age and older people are deeply ingrained in many societies and, unlike other forms of prejudice and discriminatory behaviour, are rarely acknowledged or challenged. This leads to widespread marginalisation of older people, and is at the root of their isolation and exclusion. 

6. Older people are highly vulnerable to abuse, deprivation and exclusion.

A growing body of evidence shows that many older people face abuse and violence in their own homes, and in institutional and long-term care facilities. Many are also denied the right to make decisions about their personal finances, property and medical care. They are often denied social security, access to health and productive resources, work, food and housing. 

7. Older people hold rights but are often treated with charity instead of as rights holders.

Many governments see ageing predominantly as a social welfare or development issue. This reduces older people to recipients of charity rather than people who should enjoy their rights on the same basis as everybody else. A paradigm shift is needed from a social welfare to a rights-based approach.

8. National protections of older people's rights are inconsistent.

National standards on the rights of older people are patchy and inconsistent, as are protection regimes. As a result, few countries collect data on violations of the rights of older people. Violations will continue unaddressed as long as there is a gaping lack of information on their nature, prevalence, and cause.

9. Respect for older people's rights benefits society as a whole.

Violations of the rights of older people lead to exclusion, poverty, and discrimination of older people. Yet, older people make key contributions to any society through their experience and wisdom. Better protection of the rights of older people will allow societies to better capitalise on the potential that older people represent. There is clear evidence, for example, that when older people's right to social security is realised, there is a positive impact on reduction of poverty rates, restoration of older people's dignity, reduction of child labour and increased enrolment in schools.

10. Older people are an increasingly powerful group.

Older people represent a rapidly growing constituency and are among the most loyal election participants. When they vote, they can have significant political influence. Governments need to address their rights and needs or they risk losing support from this increasingly large block of voters.

Download the OEWG call to action with a full list of references and organisations who have endorsed it (131 kb).

Your comments

K S S Pillai

As rightly pointed out in the blog, older people are in need of protection of their rights rather than charity. The condition of the aged poor is pathetic in many countries. Politicians neglect them because they are not powerful vote-banks as of now. The UN must see that the governments everywhere take effective steps to improve the condition of the elderly immediately.

Bethany Sumner

I agree respect and protect elders and improve society as a whole.

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Author profile

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

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