Historic development: UN States recommend a UN convention to better protect rights in old age

The 14th session of the United Nations (UN) Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG), held from May 20-24, 2024, marked an important milestone in the promotion and protection of human rights in older age, after years of discussion and active advocacy by civil society.

Established by the United Nations General Assembly, the mandate of the OEWG is to: assess the international human rights framework for older persons, identify gaps and propose measures to fill those gaps, including the feasibility of new instruments.

This year, for the first time since its creation in 2010, the OEWG adopted by consensus a set of recommendations that encourage UN Member States to consider – among other options – an international legally binding instrument, namely a convention, to promote, protect and ensure the recognition and realization of all human rights of older persons.

This unprecedented decision also gives the mandate to the Chair of the OEWG to present these recommendations for the consideration of the General Assembly with a view to promoting further concrete discussions on next steps on the protection and promotion of the human rights of older persons.

Our advocacy is paying off

The adoption of this decision could not have taken place without the persistent advocacy of civil society. AGE Platform Europe, together with our members and in collaboration with the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People (GAROP) and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), for more than 14 years, have highlighted gaps in the protection of the rights of older persons and made a strong case for the adoption of a new UN convention both within the OEWG and in between its annual sessions. Our work at EU and international levels was essential in maintaining momentum, growing support among Member States and ensuring that the voices of older people from across Europe are heard. Most recently, the answers submitted to the questionnaire of the two cofacilitators appointed by the OEWG in 2023 were an important catalyst for this outcome since the decision mentions that the recommendations derive from the responses submitted to the consultation. The Chair of the OEWG acknowledged the significant engagement of NHRIs and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) insisting that their active participation has always been crucial for the OEWG.  In fact, this year, the 14th Session included a record number of NHRIs and CSOs from the various regions of the world, whose contributions, prior and during the session, acted as an important catalyst for the positive outcome achieved. Without civil society mobilisation formally and behind the scenes, the option of a UN convention on the rights of older persons may not have been included among the list of recommendations.

What did AGE do at the 14th session?

This year, AGE’s delegation to the 14th OEWG session included our President, Dr. Heidrun Mollenkopf, our member and Chair of the Task Force on age-friendly environments, John Kirstein, our Human Rights Manager, Dr. Nena Georgantzi and our Policy and EP Liaison Officer Sarah Loriato. We were also joined by Pamela Suero, a PhD student from the Horizon Europe HOMeAGE Project doing her secondment with AGE and three of our members: Ina Voelcker from the German National Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations (BAGSO), Dr. Jürgen Focke from HelpAge Deutschland and Dr. Bridget Penhale from the British Society of Gerontology.

In our opening statement, Heidrun Mollenkopf urged Member States to express support for a UN convention and called upon the European Union and its Member States to lead the rally in championing a new treaty on the rights of older persons.

Nena Georgantzi participated in the panel on normative elements, arguing that the current international human rights framework is conceptually limited, biased and perpetuates a justice gap. She provided examples of how normative obligations of states need to be expanded to challenge ageism and ensure that we can all age with rights. 

John Kirstein made a statement during the discussion on Accessibility, infrastructure and habitat (transport, housing and access), reminding that: 

“Access to essential services and infrastructure is a fundamental right, yet older persons face multifaceted barriers hindering this access. From age discrimination in loan accessibility to overlooked needs in urban planning, intersectional challenges further exacerbate disparities. To ensure equitable access for all, we must address systemic ageism, territorial inequalities, poverty, and digital exclusion, while empowering older individuals with awareness and avenues for redress.”

Our President participated in the panel on Participation in public life and decision-making processes, highlighting that:

“The right to participate knows no age limits and must be guaranteed throughout life, equally for older people as for other age groups. To ensure meaningful participation of older people, we must address ageism and age discrimination, abolish age limits, provide training, enhance accessibility, and adopt an intersectional approach, paving the way for inclusive decision-making processes.”

Together with BAGSO, the German National Association of Senior Citizens’ Organisations and the Federal Republic of Germany, we organised a side event exploring the role of the EU to promote the human rights of older persons. The event gathered Marco La Marca, Member of Cabinet of the Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography, HE Ambassador Ana Jiménez de la Hoz, Deputy Permanent Representative of Spain to the United Nations, Tena Šimonović Einwalter, Ombudswoman of the Republic of Croatia and Ken Bluestone, Policy lead for Age International, to debate on the potential of the EU to promote the human rights in older age internally, to support third countries and its role as a regional actor in the UN and at multilateral level. The event concluded that the EU has a unique and important position in the UN and worldwide. Panellists highlighted the importance of Member States and EU collaboration to implement meaningful change. They emphasized the need for the EU to lead in creating robust international protections for older persons’ rights and called for improved data collection and resource monitoring to ensure effective implementation.  

A week ahead of the 14th session AGE and the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons also met with Council Working Party on Human Rights. For the first time in 10 years, civil society was consulted on EU’s position at the OEWG and how it can promote the rights of older persons globally. During the meeting, our Secretary General, Maciej Kucharczyk called upon the EU and member states to take part in the next 14th session of the OEWG and to support the drafting of a UN Convention on the rights of older persons. He also emphasized the need for adopting an EU Age Equality Strategy and strengthening the protection of rights in old age within the next EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. 

During this 14th session of the OEWG, the AGE delegation was also able to meet the Permanent Representatives of Germany, Denmark and Greece, the European Union delegation and other state delegates.

Our President and our Human Rights Manager also had the opportunity to participate in an Informal CSO Consultation organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the right to care and support, which took place in the margins of the 14th session of the OEWG.

Is the EU involved?

For several years, the European Commission did not participate in person at the OEWG. At the 14th session, we were happy to welcome Mr. Marco La Marca, representative of Vice-President Suica’s cabinet in charge of Democracy and Demography, who gave EU’s opening statement and participated in the panel on participation in public life and in decision-making processes, as well as our side event. The EU recognized in their final statement that more needs to be done to protect human rights in old age, welcomed the adoption of the recommendations and committed to continuing to engage with the OEWG and other relevant human rights fora.

While many EU member states participating in the 14th session highlighted continued efforts to improve their national normative and policy frameworks with regards to the older persons’ rights, most recognized the persistence of key gaps, challenges, intersectional dynamics and systemic discriminatory practices that prevent the full enjoyment of human rights in old age, hampering the quality of life of older persons.

Some member states were emphatic about the need to address these gaps by developing an UN Convention. Ambassador Ana Paula Zacarias of Portugal considered that…

“It is high time that we decide on opening negotiations at the United Nations on a new internationally legally binding instrument to protect and promote the human rights of all older persons and we are ready to do our part both here and in Geneva.”

For the first time, during the 14th session the representative of Spain, Director General of IMSERSO (Institute for the Elderly and Social Services of Spain), Teresa Sancho Castiello, underlined the need for a legally binding instrument to protect the human rights of older people.

The Ambassador from Portugal alongside the Ambassador of Brazil, played a key role as cofacilitators in developing the draft recommendations, leading the intergovernmental negotiations and reaching a consensus.

Overall, both the EU and its EU member states remained supportive or open without raising any objections. We hope that, during the next steps, the European Union can lead the process towards the adoption of a new Convention.

What happens next?

As the adopted decision of the 14th Session will soon be presented to the UN General Assembly, the next steps are crucial to ensure that UN Member States take timely and decisive action with regards to the agreed recommendations. The participation and leadership of the EU and its Member States will be fundamental in this process.

The journey is far from over for AGE and its members. It is indeed essential for us to harness this renewed momentum and continue our strong advocacy to keep up the pressure for the EU and its Member States to live up to their commitments and make tangible progress towards the realization of the recommendations. During the next months, a new General Assembly resolution is likely to be adopted and we have to make sure that it includes concrete steps towards drafting a new UN convention. Ideally, we would like to see the Human Rights Council take action by establishing a working group that will elaborate the content of a new convention.

Next steps must include the full, effective and meaningful participation of older persons, their representative organisations, civil society organisations and national human rights institutions. The upcoming European elections are an important opportunity for us to ensure that the rights of older persons appear high on the EU agenda.

During the debrief on 3rd June, AGE members made a number of suggestions:

  • Support members who want to reach out to their governments
  • Continue discussion and engage others in the frame of our General Assembly and annual conference in June
  • Draft a Press Release that members can use for dissemination
  • Prepare our own ‘manifesto’ about what we want to see next
  • Organize another meeting with members after the European elections to discuss how we can involve the new European Parliament and European Commission in our advocacy for a convention
  • Call for a meeting with the COHOM to debrief the 14th session of the OEWG and plan next steps
  • Engage with EU member states that are currently in the UN Human Rights Council
  • Share the recording and notes of our debrief with members
  • Update members about next steps and other advocacy opportunities
  • Engage with state representatives at different levels (eg. Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Social Affairs/Health, delegations in Brussels, Geneva and New York) asking concrete follow up actions to the recommendations and the involvement of civil society in next steps
  • Identify and collaborate with allies to call for a convention (ex. NHRIs, trade unions, academics)
  • Share experiences and learn about what strategies they have used to get support at national level
  • Reach out to national media to share this news.

Together, let’s keep on fighting to ensure equal rights at all ages and make ageism a thing of the past!

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