New report illustrates inadequacy of UN activities to protect older persons’ human rights


The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has prepared a report on how the UN system and agencies are integrating the human rights of older persons in their ongoing work. The report was presented at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 10 July, during a thematic panel discussion on enhancing technical cooperation and capacity-building.

Normative standards are lacking

Although older persons still face barriers in their equal and full participation in society and may even be subject to abuse and discrimination, the visibility of these human rights breaches under international law remains very low. Human rights instruments are weak and often lack specific reference to age discrimination, an adequate standard of living, support for autonomy, participation in decision-making and freedom from violence, abuse and neglect. For example, among more than 13,000 recommendations related to discrimination classified under the Universal Human Rights Index, less than 1 per cent concern age discrimination against older persons.

The report recommends that

  • treaty bodies (i.e. committees that oversee the implementation of existing human rights instruments) and independent experts or special rapporteurs appointed by the UN should provide guidance about how existing norms apply to the situation of older persons
  • there is a need for the development of new standards to fill in the gaps in the protection of human rights of older persons, as discussed in the frame of the UN OEWG
  • states should systematically monitor and report about the human rights of older persons to international human rights mechanisms.

Limited guidance about SDGs implementation

At present, there is no comprehensive guidance available in the United Nations system on systematically integrating the human rights of older persons into operational activities, including for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Even though there is a recommendation for national action to combat age discrimination against older persons, it is limited to employment. However, social protection and care for older persons are often identified as priority actions. To fill this gap, states and other stakeholders should be required to report on the situation of older persons, e.g. as part of the monitoring and review processes of the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Additionally, older persons, civil society organisation and national human rights institution (NHRIs) should be included in the design and implementation of technical cooperation and capacity-building activities to ensure an inclusive implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the full realization of older persons’ human rights.

Some good practices but with gaps

The report illustrates some progress in mainstreaming ageing in national policies. For example the UNECE Working Group has funded some projects on how to formulate ageing-related policies in response to the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) and its Regional Implementation Strategy. Additionally, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has developed a toolkit about pension rights and the World Health Organization (WHO) elaborated guidelines for the integrated care of older persons. Technical co-operation in the Latin American region has improved thanks to the Interamerican convention on the human rights of older persons. Overall however, many more efforts are necessary to consistently mainstream the human rights of older persons into the United Nations system.

Visibility to AGE work

The report also highlighted efforts by civil society to promote the human rights of older persons and improve capacity for their practical implementation. In this context, it referred to the seminar that we co-organised in April 2018 with the OHCHR Regional Office for Europe. AGE Platform Europe also organized a multi-stakeholder consultation to develop a conceptual and practical understanding of the rights to autonomy and independence and to long-term and palliative care as a concrete contribution to the 9th session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG). Moreover, the report drew attention to our Ageing Equal campaign that marked the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and aimed at creating a movement to fight ageism.

The need for a human rights-based framework

Overall the report highlights that ageing continues to be understood as a vulnerability and challenge to be overcome while UN activities focus primarily on older people’s needs and the provision of basic services. A human rights-based approach would require a fundamental shift in the viewing of older persons as rights holders and active agents of change, rather than simply as vulnerable populations who need assistance and support. This is why AGE, several NGOs and national human rights institution as well as the UN Independent Expert have argued that there is a need for an international legally binding instrument to enhance the protection of the human rights of older persons. Additionally, in order to improve the capacity of stakeholders to adopt a human rights based approach to ageing we strongly believe that human rights education should also target older persons and increase awareness of ageism as an obstacle to the full realisation of human rights.

Joining forces to draw attention to older people at the UN Human Rights Council

The 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council, from 24 June to 12 July 2019, considered various human rights issues including discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, migrants’ rights, and women’s rights among many other issues.

It also included a panel discussion on technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of the human rights of older persons. This was an opportunity to gather views and expertise on achievements and gaps inStates’ work to protect the human rights of older persons and to present the recent report by the OHCHR. In this frame AGE and other organisations made an oral statement highlighting that that most activities undertaken by the UN and its Member States fail to address the human rights of older persons. We also called for a new binding instrument as well as for human rights education programmes targeting older persons and increasing awareness of ageism. The discussions of the session have been broadcasted and registered here

Moreover, on 27 and 28 June the annual discussion on the human rights of women took place, focusing on violence against women in the world of work, the rights of older women and their economic empowerment. AGE supported other NGOs in a joint statement where we highlighted that age in combination with discrimination on the basis of sex create unique barriers for older women, for example in terms of access to work, social security and financial services among others. Again we highlighted that a new convention can bring more visibility and address more efficiently the compound effect of age and sex discrimination as it is experienced by older women.

Finally, AGE endorsed a statement on the rights of widows that was delivered during the general debate on the 1st July. This statement highlighted several of the harmful cultural practices that lead to human rights breaches of widows and lead to their disempowerment. Whereas not all these issues are relevant for older widows in Europe AGE decided to support this call in solidarity with women and widows of all ages and all regions of the world.

For further information, please contact Nena Georgantzi, AGE Human Rights Officer:

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