Creating a useful human rights convention requires a strong, collective understanding that a problem exists, the willingness of UN member states to act on it, the full engagement of civil society to work with governments to achieve a meaningful result, and the awareness and commitment of all stakeholders to put these agreements into practice. We are already a significant way down this path, but much more needs to be done.
The Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing
Since 2011, UN member states have been meeting with non-governmental organisations and experts in New York to understand how to better protect the human rights of older people.
The Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) has a broad mandate to examine the existing international framework in relation to the human rights of older people, to identify possible gaps and how best to address them and to present proposals on the main elements of a new legal instrument to the General Assembly. From the outset, the potential for a convention has dominated the discussion.
Supporters for a convention exist across all regions of the world and their numbers are growing. As has been the case for all previous human rights conventions, however, there are member states, including many in the EU, who are reluctant to embark on a drafting process until convinced it is necessary.
The OEWG is not a decision-making body but is critical for building greater understanding and support for protecting older people’s rights. The global conversation taking place in New York, in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and across nations’ capitals is building momentum towards a convention that has never occurred before.
Another milestone in this process has been the establishment of a Human Rights Council Independent Expert on the rights of older people, Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, who is independent of and complementary to the work of the OEWG. The task of the first three years of this position was to shine a light on different aspects of how the rights of older people can be best protected.
Ms Kornfeld-Matte submitted the final report of her first 3 year mandate to the Human Rights Council in the autumn of 2016. The report found that the non-binding Madrid International Action Plan on Ageing is insufficient for ensuring old people's rights are protected.
The Independent Expert had her mandate renewed at the end of 2016 and will use the next three years to focus greater attention on the specific human rights challenges older people face and what States can do to address them.
It is time for the UK Government to lead
The UK Government has a long and proud history of promoting human rights globally and is a powerful and respected leader in global affairs.
Through championing human rights in the UN, the UK has been instrumental in creating the global rights architecture that has changed the lives of millions for the better. As Baroness Anelay, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), said to the Human Rights Council in 2015: "we have a collective responsibility to address human right concerns whenever and wherever they occur."
The UK Government has an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership by ensuring the rights of older people are fully understood and protected globally. This includes participating actively in the UN’s Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG).
The Government should now join the growing number of member states globally that recognise the important role a convention could play in strengthening the protection of older people’s rights. Both within the EU and globally, the UK’s backing would have enormous influence.
In its application to the Human Rights Council for the period 2017-2019, the UK expressed a wish to work with all those who stand for freedoms and uphold universal rights. Baroness Anelay, UK Minister for Human rights, explained that 'the UK has played a key role in UN human rights since their inception. We have been a strong advocate of the Human Rights Council and the tools and mechanisms at its disposal for strengthening human rights protection globally.
The UK made a series of pledges to the Human Rights Council, draw from its 'tradition of democratic and inclusive values', including:
- Strengthening the protection of human rights in the UN's work.
- Translating the 2020 Agenda on Sustainable Development into action and leaving no-one behind.
- Working to end violence against women and girls and promoting women's full participation and leadership in political and economic life.
Championing a human rights convention for older people is entirely consistent with these values and pledges and would also help to continue to put these principles into practical effect.
As the numbers of older people globally continue to grow, there is no doubt that there will be more and more focus on their rights and on how governments and civil society should respond. Similarly, the debate over drafting a new human rights convention for older people is sure to intensify over the next few years and the UK Government has an opportunity to play a leading and influential role.
Rather than wait for this agenda to be set by others, with its strong stance on promoting human rights globally, the UK Government is well placed to take the lead in this area and help shape the convention. To this end, we believe it should act now to back calls for a convention. Millions of older women and men worldwide stand to gain as a result.
Recommendations for the UK Government
Working towards a convention
- Support the creation of a human rights convention for older people and encourage other UN Member States to do the same.
- Make a public commitment to the UN Human Rights Council to strengthen the protection of the rights of older people globally.
- Build on and develop a joint UK Government-civil society task force, including older people, to develop the UK Government’s input into the creation of a convention.
Taking action now to strengthen rights
- Foster greater awareness in the UK for the need to better protect the rights of older people globally and take immediate steps to strengthen these rights for all older people.