A treaty to protect the rights of older people is long overdue!

Rosa Kornfeld-Matte's report on her work as the UN Independent Expert on the rights of older persons was informative, if also bloodless. The harsh reality is that older people rank among the poorest people in the poorest countries in the world.  Indeed, the UN Secretary-General has written:

“Homelessness, malnutrition, unattended chronic diseases, lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation, unaffordable medicines and treatments and income insecurity are just a few of the most critical human rights issues that a large number of older persons confront on a daily basis.”

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, decried “the limited and fragmented response” of states to the plight of older people. Striking a note of urgency, she argued that dedicated measures to strengthen the international protection regime for older persons are called for “without further delay.”  

What is clearly needed is a legally binding UN human rights treaty on the rights of older persons.  They would thus join other groups whose rights are explicitly protected in international law.

A rights treaty is not a magic bullet but it would be another tool to bring about a better future for older people.

At the base of much of the struggle of many older people is ageism.  The American scholar, Robert Butler, defined ageism as negative beliefs and prejudicial attitudes toward older persons as well as the aging process.  It relies on the social criterion of age to legitimize discrimination.  The manifestations of ageism range from inaccurate and insulting portrayals of ageing and of older persons, to patronizing behaviour toward older people, to unequal treatment of older people in the labour force, to grossly inadequate pensions, to elder abuse in private homes and care facilities, and so on.

report compiled by HelpAge International, a leading older persons' advocacy group, provided numerous examples of what flows from ageism.   

For instance:

  1. a 2008 study found that 1 in 9 older Americans were at risk of hunger;
  2. in Peru, older people are frequently prevented from even applying for jobs, regardless of their skills and qualifications;
  3. in India, a 2010 study found that 36 per cent of older people interviewed had experienced some type of abuse;
  4. in Kyrgyzstan, ambulance services routinely discriminate against people over 50;
  5. a survey of 1,265 older people in 32 countries found that 76% of those in rural areas and 67% in urban areas could not pay for basic services like water, electricity, health care, adequate food, and decent housing.

In addition, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), half of the world's older people receive no pensions at all.

Flickr/HelpAge International (Some rights reserved)

A woman crafts incense sticks at an older people's village administered by HelpAge India.

International human rights law has been of negligible help to older persons because explicit references to age in the core human rights conventions are scarce.  As the UN Secretary-General has written, “Existing human rights mechanisms have lacked a systematic and comprehensive approach to the specific circumstances of older men and women.”  

Existing human rights mechanisms have lacked a systematic and comprehensive approach to the specific circumstances of older men and women. 

Of the three foundational human rights instruments—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights—none explicitly identifies age as a prohibited ground of discrimination. The latter two treaties do list race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, and birth, and then refer to “other status.”  However, “other status” can be interpreted in ways that could exclude age.   

Support for a new treaty comes mostly from developing countries, particularly those in Latin America. The previous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, also indicated her support for a convention.  

Most developed states are presently opposed to a new treaty on the rights of older persons.   Their opposition is based on 2 grounds.  First, they argue that existing treaties and “soft laws” already protect the rights of older persons and that the task is to promote the fuller implementation of those existing conventions and other, non-binding standards. Secondly, they refer to the problem of what is called treaty fatigue.

Treaty fatigue refers to the fatigue that states are experiencing as a result of having to repeatedly report to the UN on their compliance with many UN human rights treaties.  The burden of reporting, states argue, means they are late with their reports, submit reports with inaccuracies, or do not report at all.  There are also concerns about the costs of treaty-making and treaty-implementing, and the worry of a never-ending list of subjects for new human rights treaties.   

Of course, these are the same arguments used by the opponents in previous efforts to develop new human rights treaties, including those for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Indeed, one Canadian disability rights activist who was involved in the negotiations for the CRPD confirmed to us that most developed states were initially opposed to it for the above reasons.

But these conventions have proven to be effective human rights tools and it is fair to say that there is now virtually universal acceptance of their value. Furthermore, there is solid academic research showing that UN human rights treaties work.  They do have an impact.  Further, the contention that existing conventions already protect the rights of older persons is not quite accurate.  There is a hugely vital set of rights that are not protected, beginning with explicit protection against discrimination.  

The Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, approved last June by the Organization of American States, includes articles on equality and non-discrimination for reasons of age; the right to independence and autonomy; the right to give free and informed consent on health matters; the rights of older persons receiving long-term care; the right to housing and appropriate, age-sensitive accommodation and housing policy; and the right to work.  

A draft Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Older Persons calls on states to combat negative attitudes against older persons; adopt measures to enable older persons to access credit facilities; and enact legislation making it an offence for family members, the community, institutions or other persons to abuse older persons.

With respect to the treaty fatigue argument, even though many states have been consistently late in their reporting on their implementation of rights, this hasn’t stopped implementation efforts.  For example, UNICEF reports that the CRC has made a significant difference for the children of the world, and data from the ILO show a substantial reduction in the extent of child labour.

The time has come for progressive states to step up and use their influence to bring an older persons' rights treaty to fruition.