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Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Expert Group Meeting on Human rights of Older Persons

Geneva, 26 May 2010

Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for taking part in these two days of dialogue discussing the human rights of older persons.  I also wish to express gratitude to our colleagues in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs for having sought our contribution to the analysis of international human rights principles and standards as they apply to older persons, and for co-organizing this meeting with my Office.

It is a fundamental principle of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that neglected population groups should be given space and weight in the human rights agenda. The role of my Office is to ensure a voice for all, especially for those whose voices are seldom heard.

We strive to bring to the fore substantive human rights issues and to shed light on emerging areas of concern. It is our mission to articulate clearly and forcefully that human rights considerations are an essential dimension of public policy design and implementation by States, and that these are incomplete if particular groups are not fully integrated.

We have also realized that, in order for human rights issues to be tackled effectively at national and local levels, public advocacy alone is not sufficient.  Partnerships with civil society - academics, independent experts, non governmental organizations and other UN agencies are also essential.

Distinguished Participants,

 Not very long ago, the issue of ageing populations was considered a matter of importance for only a handful of countries in the developed world. The radical demographic shift we now face has caught many policymakers off guard. Emerging economies and developed countries alike have been slow in realizing that legislation and policy can no longer ignore the rights of older persons. By 2050, most countries around the world will  have twice their current numbers of older persons.

For many of these people, the outlook is grim. It is already well established that millions of older persons globally face unequal treatment or denial of their basic rights, particularly in the form of chronic poverty, unemployment, violence and abuse, limited access to justice and lack of social and political participation. Older persons are commonly neglected in disease-prevention or disaster assistance programmes.

Let us not forget however that many older persons remain positive and active members of their communities. In its Principles for Older Persons adopted in 1991, the General Assembly recognized that while more individuals than ever before are reaching an advanced age, they are also in better health than ever before.  The Principles stress that opportunities should be provided for willing and capable older persons to participate in and contribute to the ongoing activities of society. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

This shift in the global demographic is a dramatic one.  It is forcing attitudinal changes where there clearly needs to be change and reform.  The recognition that this group is entitled to the same human rights as everyone else will however require more than attitudinal change. There will need to be structural and legislative reform at a national level.

 The human rights instruments we have available to us can be used as the tools to engineer the fundamental policy changes which must be made to accommodate this shift in the global demographic. 

In my view, the question is not whether international human rights standards as they currently stand are applicable to older persons: clearly they are. The question is rather, whether the existing human rights mechanisms can be given practical effect in terms of legislation, tools and standards to effectively and systematically address the critical situation of older persons. 

All of us must work to identify strategies that assist in the strengthening of national policy responses to the protection gaps that have been identified. The challenge is to move beyond rhetoric to implementation, using the array of mechanisms at our disposal.

 The Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights include provisions for the protection of human rights of older persons, such as the rights to health, to an adequate standard of living, to freedom from torture, legal capacity and equality before the law.

A number of Conventions also contain provisions which are applicable to older persons and two human rights instruments contain explicit references to age – the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The Disabilities Convention merits closer examination for a number of reasons. While not all older persons are disabled and ageing should not be seen as a disability, there are many older persons with disabilities. This instrument has the potential to expand notions such as accessibility and legal capacity with an inevitable positive impact on the situation of older persons.

To fully realize the whole range of rights of older persons now and in the future, a variety of concerted and strategic actions need to be taken.  All of us have a role to play in achieving the goals of independence, equal participation, appropriate care, self-fulfilment and dignity of older persons.          

During this meeting, several experts have offered their views on the various roles and responsibilities of national actors, both in the public and private domain, as well as of the international community and non governmental organizations.  I am pleased to learn that some good practices and experiences have been shared amongst you, notably on the rights to health, to work and on persons with disabilities.

I encourage all of you to bring to the attention of my Office suggestions for the development of strategies to improve the focus on the implementation of rights-based programmes for older persons.

Distinguished participants,  

Before concluding, allow me to say that I am aware of the call by many for a new international instrument on the human rights of older persons. There has been much discussion recently about the best way forward on protection of the rights of older persons and there is concern at the fragmentation in existing international instruments. Equally there are counter views that the existing instruments, used effectively, cover the many and varied human rights perspectives of our older citizens. 

In this discussion I note the important role Committees play as focal points to lead the way and offer guidance for policy makers, legislators and courts in raising the profile of critical human rights issues. I welcome this debate and like all of you, I and my Office will be watching these developments closely.

We must all accept the inevitability of ageing.  What we do not have to accept and must not accept is that old age brings with it a lesser access to and enjoyment of the full range of human rights.  That includes the access that must be guaranteed to appropriate health care, housing and income but also continuing access to the community as a valued and active participant.  Gatherings such as this are now seeking a way forward.  It is a welcome and overdue development and has the full support of my office.

I thank you very much.