Author: Sylvia Perel Levin
Source: UN Special
Older persons worldwide experience discrimination and the violation of their human rights at family, community, institutional and societal levels. The unprecedented ageing of the global population means that discrimination is likely to increase. We live longer in every region of the world and it is one of the greatest achievements of humanity. But do we live well in our old age? Sadly, older people encounter numerous barriers to their enjoyment of human rights.
Older persons are not a homogenous, separate group. Age alone does not define them. In fact, ageing applies to the whole population regardless of group or identity. Unless you die young, you will grow old. Human rights should apply to everyone everywhere throughout the course of life. But in reality, upper-age limits in all fields of life prevent older persons from exercising their rights, whether it is employment, access to health and care services, training, housing or participation in decision-making. Age becomes the only basis for discrimination that is still accepted and enshrined in legislation and policies.
Ageism, the stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age, is the root cause of the specific challenges that older persons face in all aspects of life. Ageist attitudes lead to lower quality of life, lack of access to preventive health care or rehabilitation services, and to abusive practices, such as denied or undignified treatment. Pension schemes are inadequate, as they are not conceived to cover care-related needs, but for the loss of work-related income. In fact, only one in four people over 65 in low and middle-income countries receives a pension at all.
Abuse, including social isolation, neglect, physical restraints, disrespect for individual choices, being deprived of day-to-day decisions, of liberty, of privacy or of palliative care can be a reality for older persons both at home or in an institution. This abuse is mostly hidden and tolerated with no legislation or regular monitoring, a lack of adequate quality standards, no training of caregivers and austerity measures.
While most international human rights treaties apply in principle to people of all ages, specific reference to older persons is rare. Very few Member States include older persons in their reports to the Universal Periodic Review and the various Committees of the human rights mechanisms.
The Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) was established by the General Assembly in 2010 with the mandate to examine the existing international framework to protect the human rights of older persons, identify possible gaps and how best to address them, including by considering further instruments and measures. In the six meetings of the OEWG to-date, the debate has been divided between those who promote a new convention on the rights of older persons and those who are against it.
The Independent Expert on the human rights of older persons, in her report to the Human Rights Council last September, urged Member States to address the protection gap, to step up efforts to determine the best way to strengthen the human rights of older persons and to consider the various proposals that have been made, notably the elaboration of a convention.
The NGO Committee on Ageing at the UN in Geneva works to raise awareness of ageing issues and to ensure that the UN System adequately addresses them. It brings together organizations and individuals with an interest in the wellbeing and human rights of older persons. Beyond the international NGOs that focus on ageing in their mission, we also work with organizations that focus on human rights, women, palliative care, mental health, dementia, environment, education, large faith-based organizations, and also youth organizations. We interact with all generations because we believe that by protecting the rights of older persons we are protecting the rights of all of society. We see every day that the majority of volunteers representing civil society at the UN are older persons supporting a myriad of causes.
The NGO Committee on Ageing in Geneva interacts with sister Committees in New York and Vienna. We are members of the stakeholder group on ageing that advocates and monitors the inclusion of older persons in the 2030 agenda to make sure that Leaving no one behind is more than a slogan. We participate in Habitat 3 to make sure that urbanization takes into account the unprecedented number of older persons living in cities. We organize events at the Human Rights Council and around the International Day of Older Persons and we contribute to processes such as negotiations of resolutions, the WHO Global Action Plan on Ageing and Health and the UNECE Working Group on Ageing.
We monitor and make sure that the UN and specialized agencies are aware of what the others do in the field of ageing, promoting interagency and intra-agency cooperation. We disseminate messages and news to our organizations around the world in a true cascading fashion.
Member States should recognize the systemic, multifaceted, structural discrimination faced by older persons, systematically include older persons in consultations and monitoring mechanisms, ensure an equal application of rights across the life course and eliminate arbitrary age barriers that serve to justify the exclusion of older persons. Governments should engage in a constructive discussion around a Convention on the rights of older persons to tackle ageism and the social injustice that older persons suffer.