Strengthening Older People’s Rights: Towards a United Nations Convention

1. Introduction
Older men and women have the same rights as everyone else: we are all born equal and this does not change as we grow older. Even so, older people’s rights are mostly invisible under international law.
Despite the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,1 older people are not recognised explicitly under the international human rights laws that legally oblige governments to realise the rights of all people. Only one international human rights convention (The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families) mandates against age discrimination. Commitments to the rights of older people exist, such as with the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA). However, they are not legally binding and therefore only impose a moral obligation on governments to implement them.
A UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons is necessary to ensure that older women and men can realise their rights. With a new UN convention, and the assistance of a Special Rapporteur, governments can have an explicit legal framework, guidance and support that would enable them to ensure that older people’s rights are realised in our increasingly ageing societies.
Demographic change is resulting in unprecedented numbers of older people worldwide. Greater numbers of people will be affected directly by age discrimination and ageism, thereby increasing pressures on governments and society as a whole to respond. Strengthening older people’s human rights is the best single response.
While UN conventions are agreed by governments, support cannot be built without the backing and advocacy of older people. Civil society organisations play a key role in making this happen and in holding governments to account for the decisions they make. This is why we need you to be involved.
This publication was produced to strengthen understanding and awareness of the need for a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. It aims to provide the arguments and tools for engaging stakeholders across the globe in debate about older people’s rights and the role of a convention. We actively encourage others to translate this publication into as many languages as possible. A design template is available to help facilitate this.
Please contact any of the participating organisations that have made this publication possible for further information.

2. Why is Demographic Ageing Important?

Population ageing is one of humanity’s greatest triumphs. It is also one of our greatest challenges and places increasing economic and social demands on all countries.
Worldwide, the proportion of people aged 60 years and over is growing and will continue to grow faster than any other age group due to declining fertility and rising longevity.
The number of older people over 60 years is expected to increase from about 600 million in 2000 to over 2 billion in 2050. This increase will be greatest and the most rapid in developing countries, where the number of older people is expected to triple during the next 40 years.
By 2050, over 80 per cent of older people worldwide will be living in developing countries.
At the same time, the number of ‘older old’ persons (here defined as 80 years and over) in the developed world will reach unprecedented levels.2
Older people need adequate income support as they age, opportunities to engage in decent employment should they wish to remain active, and access to appropriate health and social services, including long-term care. The higher number of women living into very old age also presents a major challenge for policy-makers.
The lack of policies to address these issues is condemning millions of older people to a life of poverty instead of recognising the active economic and social contributions they can make to their families, communities and society as a whole.

3. Putting older People’s rights into Context

What Are Human Rights?
Human rights are the rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of age, citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality or abilities.
When these inherent rights are respected, people are able to live with dignity and equality, free from discrimination. Human rights are universal, widely accepted and central to our understanding of humanity. The concept of human rights has developed over time and has its origins in a wide range of philosophical, moral, religious and political traditions. There is no single historical narrative charting the evolution of rights to the understanding we have of them today. This is what gives them their universal relevance.
What Are older People’s Rights?
The Universal Declaration on Human Rights states in Article 1 that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. This equality does not change with age: older men and women have the same rights as people younger than themselves.
The rights of older people are embedded yet not specific in international human rights conventions on economic, social, civil, cultural and political rights. Examples include the right to equal protection before the law, the right to own property, the right to education, the right to work and the right to participate in government.
Some rights may have more relevance in older age than at other times in life, e.g. the right to social security in the form of a pension.
Sometimes a right that may have been respected when someone is young may not be well protected in older age, e.g. the right to access appropriate health and social care services.

Why is it Important to Promote and Protect the Rights of older People?
Human rights change people’s lives. Protecting older people’s rights will help to enable them to lead dignified, secure lives, as equal members of society.
Discrimination against any group in society is unacceptable. With rapid population ageing, the prevalence of age discrimination escalates and so does the imperative to address the fundamental causes of discrimination. Treating older people with respect and on an equal basis with younger people creates the conditions that enable all people in society to participate in and contribute to their own development. It is important to remember that today’s younger adults are tomorrow’s older people.

What Is the Connection between Ageism, Age Discrimination and older People’s Rights?
Ageism is the stereotyping of, prejudice against, or discrimination against a person because of their age. Age discrimination is when someone is treated differently because of their age.
Ageism and age discrimination can result in violations of older men’s and women’s rights.They continue to be tolerated at all levels of society: by individuals and institutions; through local, provincial and national policies; as well as in the business sector.
It is important to remember that older people are not a homogenous group. Older men and women age differently and the discrimination that they experience is often multi-dimensional, based not only on age but on other factors, such as gender, ethnic origin, where they live, disability, poverty, sexuality or literacy levels.

How Are older People’s rights Violated?
The rights of older people are violated in a number of different ways, including: Older people’s right to freedom from discrimination, older men and women are often denied access to services, jobs or treated without respect because of their age and other factors such as gender or disability.
Older people’s right to freedom from violence
Older men and women are often subjected to abuse including verbal, sexual, psychological and financial abuse.

Older people’s right to social security
Many older people do not have financial protection such as pensions and other forms of social security. Lack of a secure minimum income can make older people and their families fall into poverty.

Older people’s right to health
Older people may not receive appropriate health and social care because of their age. Treatment can be denied and older people can receive poor or insufficient service.

Older people’s right to work
Sometimes older people are deemed ‘unemployable’ because of their age — this is a violation of a person’s rights in the workplace, everyone has the right to free choice of employment. Furthermore, older people may also be forced to stop working because of mandatory retirement ages.

Older people’s right to property and inheritance rights
In many parts of the world, inheritance laws, both statutory and customary, deny women of all ages the right to own or inherit property when their husband is deceased. Family members often force widows off their land or seize their property which is a violation of their right to equality of ownership, management and the disposition of property.

* This document on the “Rights of Older People” as been provided to us by Susan Paul, President, Global Action on Aging, 777 Un Plaza, Suite 6J, New York, NY 10017 US, E-mail: This publication was produced collaboratively by nine organisations (their names and sites are provided at the end of the document).
1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established in 1948, is now recognised as customary law that is binding on every country in the world. The UN has compiled translations of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in over 300 languages and dialects: .
2 Source: Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, World Population Prospects: the 2008 Revision: .

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