Strengthening rights globally

May 23, 2024
Grandparent with grandchild outdoors.
In a post-pandemic world, the call for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons has never been more compelling.

The pandemic laid bare some stark inequities in society, particularly when it comes to the way we treat society’s most senior members. Globally speaking, a majority of the people who died of the virus were older, and in addition, the situation killed many, not of COVID but of other conditions, sometimes as a result of not being able to access the care they needed in a timely manner.

Add to that the number of humanitarian crises and conflicts around the world and the additional vulnerabilities of older adults in those situations, and the call for a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons becomes increasingly compelling.

As Bridget Sleap, senior researcher on the rights of older people at Human Rights Watch, says, the international human rights framework at the moment doesn't adequately protect the rights of older people.

“This has consequences and impacts in a number of different ways,” Sleap explains. “It has an impact on the protection of those rights within national law, it has an impact on the way policies and programs and services for older people are designed. And it has an impact on budget allocation for those types of services and the priority they're given — all of which then means that older people can be subjected to discrimination and have their rights denied."

“There's a really strong case in terms of a convention ensuring that older people's rights are protected on an equal basis with others in society.”

Sleap says a convention would also have other effects in terms of raising the visibility of older people as rights holders.

“There's a very powerful signal that a convention gives to the world that our rights when we’re older are equally as important as any other time in our lives.”

Claudia Mahler, the UN’s independent expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, says the issues facing older people are systemic and structural.

“A convention would totally change the system because it would raise awareness. It would give states guidance,” Mahler says. “It would show them quite clearly the path we have to take.”

She says tools such as conventions, when implemented, can have a huge impact on the national level, something she witnessed with the advent of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Ironically, that may be hampering the success of this proposed convention because even developed countries that thought they were doing a good job of accommodating people with disabilities discovered they had work to do after the convention was passed. It’s something governments may be reticent to do again with a whole new societal group.

What needs to happen next

This year is significant for those who’ve been working towards a convention. Two ambassadors were assigned to review the work done over the past decade and make recommendations on how to proceed.

There has been plenty of support for the convention, with 19 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean having declared their support, 10 in Europe, including the U.K., 23 in Africa and 10 in the Asia-Pacific. Yet just one North American country — Mexico — has declared its support.

Mahler says the convention needs a UN member state to champion it when the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) meets in May.

“I would hope that there would be one member state that will take the floor and say ‘I will draft the convention, and then we will see if we can agree on how it should look,’ Mahler says. “This was how it was done with the CRDP [Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.]”

For CRDP, she says, Mexico was keen to create its own legacy and offered to draft it.

“It not only created a momentum, it created something concrete,” she says. “We can’t just sit here in our own bubbles, just saying yes or no.”

Mahler doesn’t have any suggestions of what country might take up that torch.

“If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said Canada, but I wouldn’t say that now,” Mahler says. She’s tried to engage UN colleagues with portfolios that overlap, but she says there’s almost no one else in the UN who has responsibilities for older people. “We really need to shame governments that are not willing to support their older citizens, which is a huge percentage of their population, and who also deserve to get to enjoy the human rights. There is a lot of violence against older people in the world nowadays.”

And there are also natural disasters to consider. Evacuation plans for environmental emergencies don’t take into consideration what older people need to help them evacuate. In cases of war and conflict, humanitarian aid doesn’t always consider what older people will need.

“We saw this in Ukraine, where they were not equipped to deal with this kind of issue,” Mahler says. Meanwhile, in Gaza, older people are starving because it’s been difficult to get food and other aid to the area. Exacerbating the problem, HelpAge International reports an “emerging trend which sees some older people not eating so that young children can.”

Victims of abuse

A 2022 World Health Organization (WHO) report found that 1 in 6 people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in their community over the previous year. Meanwhile, two-thirds of staff at institutions such as long-term care facilities admitted they had committed abuse over the previous year. The same report found that abuse rates of older people rose in the COVID-19 pandemic and noted that the global population of people aged 60 and over will more than double by 2050, so in that regard alone, action is needed now.

The WHO identifies elder abuse as a “single or repeated act or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person.” Such human rights-violating abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, financial or material. Abandonment, neglect and absence of dignity and respect are also included.

In her own annual report, which, in 2023, looked at violence against older persons, Mahler notes that data on experiences of violence against and abuse and neglect of older persons is largely non-existent — at least beyond what the WHO reported the previous year.

“Owing to these challenges, it is assumed that the actual numbers of older persons who are victims of abuse or violence are significantly higher than the existing data show and that, due to the aging of the world population, the number of victims will grow rapidly in the future if no measures are taken to effectively address the problem,” she writes.

Why the reticence?

Sleap says the predominant argument member states that aren’t in favour of the convention advance is that the existing human rights system is sufficient — that older people enjoy the same rights as everyone else, so they’re covered.

But Sleap thinks that equally, these states don’t want to be held to account for meeting another set of human rights standards.

“There’s pushback against having to uphold people’s rights and to be scrutinized about the way they do that,” Sleap says.

Sleap says Canada was initially opposed to the convention, but it has softened in recent years, although it has yet to say it supports it.

When asked directly, the office of the minister of seniors replied that: “Canada continues to engage in discussions on the UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons with stakeholders and partners both in Canada and internationally.”

Other countries that haven’t supported it include some with poor human rights records, but there are others that have better human rights records and have championed human rights in other areas. Sweden and Finland have both said they don’t think a convention is necessary. Denmark was opposed early on and has since been silent while Norway has barely engaged.

“When there are countries that do have relatively good reputations in terms of campaigning for human rights in other areas, there are questions to be asked,” Sleap says. “Why wouldn't [they] recognize that this is an issue that requires attention, too? I think that's been very unhelpful in terms of moving the process forward.”

Ageism is everywhere

The experts are unanimous that ageism is behind all of the systemic problems older people face.

“One of the things that I found in my work over the years has been the common experience of ageism — it really is universal,” Sleap says. “I think the things that drive ageism are universal — our fear of getting older, the fear of death, ideals and norms around youth. These are common across all many cultures, even in places where there is a strong rhetoric around respect for elders.”

As such, Sleap says a convention can recognize that universal experience and can address those issues globally.

She says the convention is at a critical juncture. The open-ended working group will report on gaps it has identified in the international human rights framework and offer recommendations to address those gaps.

“We need member states to clearly recognize that there are gaps in the system and that a convention is one of the ways to address those gaps,” Sleap says. “If that happens, that will enable those states who are supporting a convention to push forward. If a convention isn’t identified, it could set back the process by decades.”