UN Independent Expert deplores growing violence against older persons and calls for UN convention

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The latest report of the UN Independent Expert on the rights of older persons states ‘an increase in violence against older persons during ongoing crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, armed conflicts and climate change’. Yet, global responses have so far been weak and fragmented.

Although on the rise, violence against older persons remains overlooked and is not a priority at the national, regional or global levels. The limited data and research on elder abuse further contributes to the invisibility of this phenomenon.

Need for comprehensive legal and policy frameworks

The Independent Expert stresses that the fight against ageism, which is often the root cause of elder abuse, needs to be an integral part of policies that aim to prevent violence, abuse and neglect in later life. She further notes that the current international human rights framework does not provide the protection necessary for older persons to live free from violence, abuse and neglect in diverse settings. In fact, the review and appraisal of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) demonstrates disparities, discrepancies and gaps in state policies on elder abuse. Existing responses ‘have been neither systemic nor transformative against a backdrop of persisting significant challenges in implementation and the provision of adequate resources (…) Therefore, national plans may be partially or not implemented, leaving huge numbers of older persons vulnerable to abuse and discrimination’. This is why the Independent Expert urges states to adopt a comprehensive international legally binding instrument (i.e. a convention) on the human rights of older persons that would address the right to life free from violence, abuse and neglect in older age. Comprehensive legislation is necessary for the prevention of violence and abuse, but also to provide survivors with legal protection, to coordinate the response of all relevant actors and to provide sanctions against perpetrators of such forms of abuse.

Multisectorial  collaboration crucial to prevent violence and abuse

The Independent Expert emphasizes that multisectorial collaboration is necessary to protect older persons from violence, abuse and neglect. One of the main strategies for preventing abuse of older persons is caregiver support programmes. Capacity-building and awareness raising of professionals working with older people is also necessary. To prevent financial abuse the involvement of banking and other financial service organisations is key. Monitoring procedures should be put in place in institutions and the provision of age-appropriate safe shelters, accessible information, economic support to live independently and support in decision-making and legal assistance for victims of abuse must be guaranteed.  Plans or policies must be informed by disaggregated data to tackle the root causes of violence against older persons.

How a new UN convention can help fight elder abuse

Violence, abuse and neglect against older persons is symptomatic of how we devalue older people’s lives, how we tend to trivialize and tolerate their suffering, and how we are more likely to accept it as normal to an extent that we would not accept for others.  Ageism is often the driver of abuse and neglect, but also leads to overlooking the consequences it has on older people and not addressing it with the same level of seriousness and determination as other forms of violence. In some cases, neglect might even be seen as a ‘normal’ consequence of ageing-related impairments and challenges, while it does constitute denial of human rights.

Combating ageism and elder abuse is very complex, because it’s insidious, systematic and institutionalized. A comprehensive and intersectoral approach to elder abuse is needed with a focus on the fight against ageism and the promotion of quality care.  This is why the Independent Expert rightly concluded that “an international, legally binding instrument would offer the best protection for the human rights of older persons”.

For a long time, also gender based violence was considered legitimate or inevitable. But fortunately, gradually, our societies have become more conscious of how such practices are wrongful and harm women. They recognized that gender stereotypes are so embedded in the unconscious that they are perpetuated by communities and state institutions. And they put in place laws and instruments to eliminate gender-based violence and abuse. 

A comprehensive legally binding instrument would create an obligation to detect and address abuse and other human rights violations against older persons. It would trigger a number of reforms, by spelling out concrete changes that are necessary to prevent rights violations experienced in old age. For example, a convention would include a wide definition of elder abuse recognizing its multiple facets and it would outlaw ageism in all spheres of life

A UN convention would also empower older persons to exercise and claim their rights. It would enhance opportunities for individuals and civil society to hold governments to account and access remedy. A UN convention would also increase visibility of abuse, violence and neglect against older persons within the existing human rights mechanisms.  Therefore, it could strengthen the general enforceability of the human rights system.

We urge all UN states to start drafting a legally binding treaty to guarantee the equal protection of our human rights in old age. The drafting of such an instrument must include the meaningful participation of older persons in their diversity, their representative organizations, civil society organizations and national human rights institutions.




Nena Georgantzi

Human Rights Manager

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