Age International is calling for a UN Convention on the rights of older people. It is unthinkable that any significant group in society could be overlooked in the international rights agenda, yet this is exactly what is happening with older people. The world’s governments must ensure a person’s rights are protected at all stages of their life.
Despite enormous demographic changes, not enough attention is paid to the implications of population ageing.
To listen to discussions about international development, you could be forgiven for thinking that older people do not really count. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) largely ignored ageing issues and, although the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goal framework is better because it mentions people of all ages, older people remain largely absent in the global discourse.
Where policy is concerned, ageing is often viewed solely as a challenge or even worse as a threat; for example, as the cause of health care demands that simply cannot be met, or of a catastrophic loss of economic productivity.
This is an incredibly unbalanced perspective, however, since ageing brings many opportunities alongside its challenges. The contributions older people make to their families and the wider society are routinely ignored and not given economic value. This approach also fails to take into account the opportunities of developing new consumer markets of goods and services for people in later life.
Policy that only considers ageing as a problem is unlikely to construct solutions that lead to a more positive future for people of all ages.
Eradicating age discrimination
There is good reason to believe that ageism holds back more older women and men in the world from living well and with dignity than any other single factor. Negative attitudes towards older people are widespread across many cultures and societies, and rooted in out-dated stereotypes. Older people are often viewed as victims of declining mental and physical capacity, as ‘has-beens’ with no aspirations for the future, or even as threats to the opportunities of younger people.
The direct effect of this ageism is that older people are at major risk of experiencing discriminatory treatment globally and across a wide range of situations; from undignified and inadequate care in the household, hospitals and residential homes, to unequal treatment in employment and inadequate responses in emergency and humanitarian situations.
‘Older people are treated differently or discriminated against because of the lack of national policies to protect older people and improve the quality of their life.’
Internationally, however, there is no universal prohibition against this type of discrimination.
The role of human rights
How we respond to demographic change as a society has a huge impact on the lives of older people. Rather than cast people in later life as a burden, we need to recognise the hugely valuable resource that they bring to our society; as employees, volunteers, carers, parents and grandparents, elected representatives, elders, and in many other roles too.
But older age can also be a time of frailty, vulnerability and ill health. We have a responsibility to ensure that a person is able to live in dignity and fulfill their potential at all stages of their life. This is what human rights are all about.
By human rights we mean the rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of their age, citizenship, nationality, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexuality, or abilities. These rights are set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and subsequent international human rights conventions.
If everyone’s rights are to be respected and put into full effect, these rights need to be clearly articulated for people of all ages and a proper framework of legislation and support put in place. This means recognising that rights are universal, that they do not diminish with age, and that they may need special protection at different stages of our lives.
Existing human rights conventions, such as the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), have demonstrated how such treaties can improve the way people are viewed and treated by society. Human rights conventions can create a platform for positive change and stimulate better policy responses.
What a UN convention would achieve
A new international convention on the rights of older people would transform debates about how to respond to global ageing.
It would clearly articulate the rights which every older person holds that would enable them to continue contributing to society across their lifetimes.
It would provide older people with an important tool for holding their governments to account when they experience the harmful effects of age discrimination.
The process of consulting on, drafting, ratifying and implementing a convention would drive the rights of older women and men and their needs up the agendas of governments worldwide, including in countries where older people are at particular risk of discrimination and poor treatment.
Closing protection gaps
A UN convention on the rights of older people would provide for the first time a definitive, universally acknowledged global standard that recognises the rights which all people hold as they get older and prohibits age discrimination.
Additionally, it would clarify and articulate how existing rights – currently dispersed throughout various other instruments and interpretive documents – should work to protect older people.
Crucially, a convention would provide a global legal standard with accompanying accountability mechanisms.
To date, such accountability has been lacking for older people around the world, with the result that their rights are routinely breached. A convention would be a powerful advocacy and education tool for older people and those who represent them in claiming their rights.
Groups of older people in many countries are actively engaging with local and national governments to claim their rights.
For example, Older People’s Associations (OPAs) in Zanzibar met with the President and senior government officials to bring about a new universal social pension. They will also have a key role to play in ensuring their government implements the pension appropriately. A UN convention would help strengthen this dialogue.
Blandina Mbaji, who leads an OPA in her community in Kibaha, Tanzania, said:
"Older people should have the right to be recognised and acknowledged as people… We are not even recognised as a group of people who not only have value, but can also be vulnerable."
"When politicians talk about how a country can develop, they talk about other age groups; they don’t even mention older people. So we have to advocate for older people so politicians can do something to help us."
Focusing policy making
In the absence of a convention, the urgent opportunities and challenges raised by global ageing are largely being ignored.
A convention can provide a framework to guide policy responses to demographic ageing based on rights, equity and social justice. It can encourage a paradigm shift from older people being considered as passive recipients of welfare, to older people as active rights holders.