Human Rights Day: Building support for older people's rights


By Sarah Marzouk

This Human Rights Day marks a critical turning point for older people’s rights. Politics has not kept pace with the realities of demographic ageing and now it is time to rethink legislation, policies and society's attitudes to ageing.

This was the message from a conference on older people’s rights, which was jointly hosted by HelpAge International, HelpAge Deutschland and Age International, in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Germany last week.

The aim of the event was to build political support for legally binding international human rights standards.

Navi Pillay supports older people's rights 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, addressed the conference and backed calls for an international convention to protect the rights of older people around the world.

She said that the standards related to the human rights of older persons need to be developed within a comprehensive framework that recognises the indivisible, interdependent and interrelated nature of rights.

Pillay also asserted that a dedicated protection regime at the international level would provide coherence to an otherwise fragmented, uneven and incomplete landscape of legal norms.

Ageing must be seen as an opportunity

Henning Scherf, the Head of the Expert Commission of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, spoke at a public debate organised by the Osnabruck Peace Forum to open the conference. He called for a shift in gear that would allow people to see ageing as an opportunity and not just a "time of being poor".

Mr Sherf said current legislation was not appropriate. He said wage agreements and neighbourhoods had not been adapted for ageing populations.

Participants at the conference called for three clear outcomes:

  • a deeper understanding of the gaps in human rights protection in Europe and the types of rights violations and discrimination that people face in old age;
  • an increased number of European civil society groups and other stakeholders committed to strengthening the protection of older people's rights under international human rights law; 
  • specific short- and long-term actions to increase European political support for new legal human rights instruments to protect older people's rights.

In support of these outcomes, Vladimir Spidla, former European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities and former Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, who also attended the Peace Forum said:

“I am fully in favour of an extension to the anti-age discrimination directive in Europe which currently does not go beyond the labour market…There are other types of age discrimination, for example, access to loans in the financial sector.”

Plan to strengthen older people's rights

A number of key areas were identified to build more political support in Europe for better protection of older people’s rights:

  • recognising where there may be support within European governments and building relationships with those in relevant ministries in European capitals; 
  • increased civil society pressure on European governments including targeting them individually and collectively through regional European processes;
  • long-term work to tackle pervasive negative social attitudes and make ageism and discrimination in old age unacceptable.

Summing up the mood of the conference, Craig Mokhiber, Chief of the Development and Economic and Social Issues Branch from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said of older people:

“There is a growing class in society reaching out for their rights and dignity. No society can develop and prosper when a whole sector is locked out of fully participating in society.”

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