The images are stark: In India, Hindu widows who are considered burdens by their families are being abandoned at temples on the banks of sacred rivers. In Ethiopia, homeless older women evicted by their relatives sleep on the steps of a cathedral; many others shelter on the doorsteps of places of worship of all faiths around the world, including in developed countries where government protections fail them.
Three decades after United Nations Principles for Older Persons was adopted in 1991, it is apparent that as the global population grows rapidly older, the abuse of the oldest people, most of them women, needs to be addressed first of all by governments, advocates insist. This is not about palliative welfare but about ensuring basic human rights.
In October, the World Health Organization demonstrated how little has been accomplished to make sure older people can carry out a life of dignity and security. Among the WHO findings: about one in six people 60 years or older has faced abuse in family and community settings, and mistreatment is predicted to increase. These developments will lead to more serious injuries and long-term psychological consequences. The pandemic, already marked by a sharp spike in domestic and gender violence, hit older people hardest.
WHO defines abuses broadly as “a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person. This type of violence constitutes a violation of human rights and includes physical, sexual, psychological and emotional abuse; financial and material abuse; abandonment; neglect; and serious loss of dignity and respect.” The agency calls such abuses “an important public health problem.”
Over the past two decades, the UN General Assembly has adopted plans to deal with the vulnerabilities hindering the lives of the world’s oldest people, particularly in poor countries. There was the Madrid Plan of Action in 2002, followed by the creation of a working group in 2010 and, most recently, the proclamation of a Decade of Healthy Ageing for 2021-2030.
This is all good but a critical piece is missing, advocates for older citizens argue. To ensure a life of dignity and social inclusion, advocates are campaigning for an internationally binding convention to protect the human rights of older people. The movement is growing. About 400 (and counting) nongovernmental organizations have joined the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People since its founding in 2011.
The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights lists nine “core” human-rights conventions — which it regards as treaties — that have been adopted since the founding of the UN. They cover civil and political rights and various aspects of discrimination. Ironically, there is a Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), but none for the world’s oldest people, who may also need specialized care and legal protection.
Susan Somers, a former legal official dealing with abuse of senior citizens in New York State, is president of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. She and Frances Zainoeddin of the International Federation on Ageing and a former official in the UN Population Division, spoke in interviews with PassBlue by Zoom and by phone on Nov. 16 and 18. They described a slow-moving process in the General Assembly working group, which any government can join. But that possibility risks encountering the geopolitics of pushback and stalemate that face even the Security Council.
In May 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched a UN policy brief focusing on early reports of abuses coming to light in the pandemic. He asked that all parties making decisions affecting senior citizens be guided by a commitment to respect and the right to health. Guterres, who is 72, called for accelerated action.
“Health care is a human right, and every life has equal value,” he wrote. “Particular risks faced by older persons in accessing health care, including age discrimination, neglect, maltreatment and violence in residential institutions, need to be properly monitored and fully addressed.”
As Zainoeddin said, “Our main concern is that the OEWGA [open-ended working group] has not complied with its mandates, after 11 sessions.”
At its creation in 2012 in the Assembly’s Third Committee, which oversees human rights, the working group was asked to “present to the General Assembly, at the earliest possible date, a proposal containing, inter alia, the main elements that should be included in an international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons, which are not currently addressed sufficiently by existing mechanisms and therefore require further international protection. . . .”
Advocates for a new convention, which the Assembly apparently favored, say that they suffered a setback three years ago when a unit in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (Desa) devoted to aging was downgraded by lowering the level of the top member of the staff assigned to it: in UN speak, from a P-5 to P-4. “Unfathomable, given an issue as important as global aging referred to by the Population Division,” a former staff person told PassBlue.
In a 2020 report, the UN Population Division, the keeper of global data, estimated that there were 727 million people age 65 or older, most of them women. That figure was expected to more than double by 2050, to at least 1.5 billion. Calculating in other factors, such as decreasing fertility and longer lifespans, the share of global population 65 and older will likely rise to about 16 percent, up from 9.3 percent in 2020.
In Somers’s interview with PassBlue, she noted how important it was that positive support from just a few UN member states in the General Assembly could help assure success on the topic of aging. She described, for example, how the committed leadership of New Zealand and Mexico had been vital to the adoption in 2006 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities. “New Zealand and Mexico stepped in and pushed it through,” she said.
No volunteers among UN member nations have appeared so far to do the same for a convention on the rights of the elderly. “We really need a champion,” Somers added.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.