Towards a binding convention on the rights of older persons

Categories: Leadership.

Interestingly, the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan are opposed to drafting such a convention, while the vast majority of low and middle income countries (LMICs), are strongly in favour.  

The high income (HIC), industrialised countries claim that the existing legal instruments (such as the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, for instance) are sufficient, and the gaps arise because governments don’t implement the relevant conventions. 

The LMICs on the other hand, which are supported by civil society organisations from around the world, claim that, since the existing instruments do not identify older persons as such, this demographic group “falls between the policy cracks.” 

Without the explicit international legal protection conferred by a convention, older persons remain extremely vulnerable to poverty, abuse, neglect, illness, and premature mortality, among other things.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly mandated the OEWG to study normative and legal protection gaps in the rights of older persons – in other words, how and where older persons as a group are most vulnerable and un-protected because specific laws have never been enacted, or because laws that do exist are not enforced

Clearly, although every country and region is different, as all six meetings of the OEWG have revealed, older persons, and particularly older women, are one of the most universally vulnerable populations on the planet. 

As the world population ages, the vulnerability of this growing population is projected to increase exponentially. People aged 60 and older make up over 11 per cent of the global population now, and by 2050, that number will rise to about 22 per cent (UNFPA).

Argentina has taken the lead in advocating for a convention to protect the rights of older persons, and indeed was one of the first countries to adopt the Inter-American Convention on the Rights of Older Persons approved by the Organisation of American States on June 15.

OEWG Chair, Mateo Estrémé, and his colleague, Federico Villegas Beltrán, made eloquent interventions on the need for a convention. 

At one standing room only side event, Señor Beltran reminded the audience that: “Individuals have rights beyond their citizenship of one state or another: they have human rights, which protect the most vulnerable victims of mass atrocities. 

“Four groups are the most vulnerable: women, persons with disabilities, children, and older persons. We all know the famous pictures from Birkenau of the line that went directly to gas chambers. Three of those four have an international convention today. Older persons do not.”

It is critical that such a convention should stipulate a right to palliative care, since older persons are a rapidly growing demographic group that is most likely to develop the chronic, life-limiting illnesses characterised by pain and other distressing symptoms.

Millions of older persons in all countries currently suffer and die in pain, even in regions where palliative care is considered “integrated” (Lynch et al. 2011).

The Independent Expert on the Rights of Older Persons, Dr Rosa Kornfield Matte, appointed by the Human Rights Council to monitor the protection gaps, stated on World Hospice and Palliative Care Day last year, that older persons have a right to palliative care.

The topics of palliative care and access to controlled opioid analgesics (medicines essential to the  treatment of severe pain) came up in the plenary and side events at the OEWGA, when speakers praised the brand new Inter-American Convention, which references palliative care nine times! 

Sadly, the Draft Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa has dropped its clause regarding a right to palliative care, owing to some drafters’ fear that palliative care could be confused with euthanasia. 

The palliative care and human rights communities in Africa are working with AU member states to clarify that misconception and to ensure that palliative care language is included the final draft, slated for ratification in early 2016.

For more information on global civil society organisations active to protect the rights of older persons see Help Age International; the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older Persons; and Global Action on Ageing.

For more information on palliative care, visit teh websites of the International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care and the Worldwide Hospice Palliative Care Alliance.

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