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Making sure ‘invisible’ are seen

V LipmanMaking sure ‘invisible’ are seen

As you enter the realm of the ‘aged’, you grow invisible, they say: younger people’s eyes look through, over, around, beyond you. The rights of the aged is one of the focal issues for CLA in 2010: here Valerie Lipman proposes a UN Human Rights convention for older people.

Rights for the Invisible: a UN Human Rights Convention
for Older People

By Valerie Lipman*

1.  Background: More Rights for Older People

Older people are now the world’s fastest growing population group: every month one
million people turn sixty years of age.  As yet their interests have not been overtly or
formally acknowledged in any UN conventions.  There is today though a growing worldwide movement, which includes civil society players, to establish an international legal framework that will promote the rights and protect the interests of older people. 

Of an estimated 673 million people aged 60 and over, 430 million (64%) live in
less developed regions (UN, 2007).  Due to the combined forces of population growth
and the speed of age-structural change in these societies, one in five people throughout the world will be over 60 by 2050: for the first time in history people in this age group will outnumber children.   Because ageing is happening rapidly and at much lower levels of social and economic development in the South than occurred in the North, older people face a heightened risk of poverty, and a lack of services and infrastructure, while their needs compete with those of still large and growing cohorts of younger people.  

Responses to the interests of older people usually fall into the arenas of health and social care and sufficiency of income.  While social welfare programs and pension schemes are indeed increasingly on the agenda worldwide, violations of older people’s rights and well-being remain common.  

Until recently, there has been a lack of advocacy on the part of NGOs and human rights activists for a legally effective international convention on the rights of older people, by comparison with other vulnerable groups such as children and women.  Some are suggesting that an international convention on the rights of older people is long overdue.   

It has been argued that the rights of older people are protected through other instruments of the UN, such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, and therefore why should there be something special for older people?  But ‘older people’ are not a group listed in the opening statements of the Declaration as entitled to the rights and freedoms set out in the UDHR protections. They are included later on (see Article 25) in the context of social and financial wellbeing, primarily as beneficiaries of services, rather than as citizens with rights.

“Rights” are an essential ingredient for maintaining life with dignity – without them there are no obligations on others to ensure that older people will receive, as a right, an adequate standard of living and acceptable quality of life.  

2.  Reasons for a convention

Typically a convention would include a universally-agreed set of non-negotiable
standards and obligations on signatories to the convention.   Society and older people in particular would benefit from a dedicated convention in many ways:

  • Participation – it would obligate national governments to turn into action the rights to freedom of expression, information, thought, conscience and religion and association, as identified in the UDHR, for older people;
  • Inclusion and Protection – without clear legal norms older persons may have difficulties fighting images that depict them primarily as a burden on society or as predominantly passive and weak individuals and would protect them from abuse, discrimination and marginalisation;
  • The international Madrid Plan of Action which came out of the 2002 World Summit on Ageing provides a comprehensive and detailed document regarding ageing-specific policies, but it is not legally binding. A convention could give greater leverage and add some “teeth” to the implementation of the Madrid Plan;
  • The existence of an international instrument such as a convention could give a boost to national efforts.
  • Dynamic citizenship entails full participation in political, social and economic affairs through the mobilization of tangible and intangible resources. Awareness of rights enhances the participation of older persons in society, making them active citizens rather than passive objects of top-down policies.

Above all a convention would aim to reduce the risk of older persons becoming
marginalized, which continues as a substantial threat to older people everywhere.

3.  Why should CLA be interested?

CLA promotes and protects individual and collective rights for people.  It has experience it could bring to bear to help others protect and promote the rights of older people, and it also has a responsibility to ensure all people in society participate in, contribute to and benefit from their societies to the level of their abilities.  Civil society organisations throughout the world are seeking to improve the rights of older people on such issues as rights to be kept informed about medical directives and powers of attorney, options for financial managements, means testing for benefits, elder abuse, quality of residential care, dignity on hospital wards and the right to move around through the use of available and physically accessible public transport.

4.  Making it happen

In terms of format, contents and reporting procedures, the proposed convention could be patterned on the existing conventions, for women, children or people with disabilities.  As with the other international conventions it would seek to contain comprehensive and legally binding provisions that would require ratifying states to promote older people’s rights and should be reinforced by a strong monitoring system 1.  It must also lay down legally effective provisions and standards on some key issues related to older people, such as access to education and leisure opportunities, income and housing security, and long-term care.

The current campaign in civil society is being lead by the NGO Committee on
Ageing/New York, representing approximately 35 organizations worldwide, International Federation on Ageing, International Association for Gerontology and Geriatrics…as well as the NGO committee in Geneva.  They are working to raise awareness of the critical issues facing the global ageing population by encouraging UN bodies, UN agencies and member states to include ageing issues in their social and economic policy considerations.  They have recently established a sub-committee, to promote a human rights convention for older people, which is co-chaired by Susanne Paul, President of Global Action on Aging (

The Latin American and Caribbean countries are leading the way toward a human rights convention on ageing. Eager to move ahead, they have opted for a “regional” convention, one that would be negotiated and guaranteed within the Organization of American States.

And at the recent follow-up to the Second World Assembly on Ageing (October 22,
2009) the Third Committee, after many debates, adopted its resolution A/C.3/64/L.6 on aging. In it, Member States request the Secretary-General to “submit to the General Assembly at its sixty-fifth session, […], a comprehensive report on the current status of the social situation, wellbeing, development and rights of older persons at the national and regional levels.” The important role of the UN, Regional Commissions, national and international non-governmental organizations was reaffirmed to protect older persons.

To find out more visit the UN: or
the GAA website http://www.globalaging/agingwatch/GA/ GAres64.pdf

Concluding comments

No convention is the answer to all issues, but formal recognition within the global
systems can add weight: it obliges countries to discuss the matter, whether to reject or accept it and most substantially of all it usually brings with it the position of rapporteur, whose job it is to monitor and report on how countries are progressing in relation to the convention. Without a convention, there is only good will. Good will has a habit of being pushed to a back burner, when there are other issues with obligation driving them and legal force behind them.

– Valerie Lipman

*  Valerie Lipman, who is based in the UK, has worked with and on behalf of
older people for over 25 years.  She is currently doing her doctoral research
on how the interests of older people are taken on board in international
development.  Email:


AppendixUN and major landmarks of older people’s rights

1948:                   Universal Declaration of Human Rights
General Assembly adopted resolution 213 (III)
A draft declaration on the rights of the elderly

1966: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);
International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights

1982: The First World Assembly on Ageing (Vienna)
(The Vienna International Plan of Action on Aging)

1991:                   United Nations Principles for Older Persons (Five principles:
independence, participation, care, self-fulfillment  and dignity)

1992:                   47th Session of the General Assembly:
Resolution on Global Targets on Ageing for the Year 2001 and the
Proclamation on Ageing

1995:                   Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General
comment No. 6: The economic, social and cultural rights of older

1999:                   The International Year of Older Persons
(Proclamation on Ageing)

2002:                  Second World Assembly on Ageing (Madrid) – Adoption of the
Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action

2007:                  Brasilia Declaration – agreement by UN Economic Commission of
Latin America and the Caribbean  (ECLAC) for proposal UN
General Assembly for a rapporteur 2 on older people and to draft a
Convention for Older Persons

2009:                   February – UN Commission for Social Development (CSD) gave a
mandate to the UN Department for Social and Economic Affairs
(UNDESA) to explore mechanisms for strengthening implementation
of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA) – e.g.
through the appointment of a special rapporteur on ageing or a
convention or both. 

2009: March – Announcement by Latin American states they will develop a
regional Convention on older people.

1 Global Social Justice for Older People: The Case for an International Convention on the Rights of Older People Kwong-Leung Tang and Jik-Joen Lee (2005) British Journal of Social Work 36 1135 -1150

2 A UN appointed person who would monitor a country’s ageing program

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