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Opening Statement to the Social Forum

1 April 2014

Madam Chair,
Mr. President,
Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to be present with you at the opening of the 2014 Social Forum of the Human Rights Council. This is a unique space for free, yet focused discussions between representatives of Member States, civil society, and intergovernmental organisations. I am confident that Monica Roqué will ably guide this session’s discussions as Chair-Rapporteur, to develop clarity and perspective on an important topic.

Your theme, the human rights of older persons, is both timely and challenging. It has remained largely neglected until very recently. But the dramatically changing demography of our societies generates increased urgency about the need to address the rights of older persons.

A demographic transformation is taking place across the globe, as the Chair has just outlined. Globally, some 700million people — roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population — are currently already over the age of 60. This percentage is projected to double by 2050, reaching 20 per cent. For the first time in history, there will be fewer children than older persons in the world. Contrary to popular perception, this trend impacts both North and South.

Older persons are all too often subjected to discrimination, neglect, exclusion and other violations, and the international community has not paid sufficient attention to these obstacles to their full enjoyment of human rights. There is still no explicit prohibition of age discrimination in international human rights law. There is also no dedicated international protection regime for the human rights of older persons. National standards are often weak or completely absent regarding age discrimination; an adequate standard of living; support for autonomy; participation in decision making; and freedom from violence, abuse and neglect.

The human rights of older persons are, naturally, included within the fundamental principles laid out by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and by international human rights instruments. But as with the human rights of children, women, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and many other groups, we have found that articulation of dedicated instruments laying the specific rights of certain groups can be of invaluable assistance in focusing world attention — and action — on key groups at risk.

Much remains to be done regarding the rights of older persons. We need to articulate clear and coherent standards relating to their human rights. A dedicated instrument for the protection of older persons at the international level would have the greatest reach and prominence, and would bring coherence to an otherwise fragmented, uneven and incomplete landscape of legal norms. And we need monitoring mechanisms, to ensure that measures to protect, respect and fulfil those human rights are properly implemented.

What are the rights of older persons

The ongoing demographic transformation makes it urgent to ensure that older persons, who are becoming an increasing part of the population of our societies, can fully participate in all spheres of social life.

Let me return for a moment to the fundamental premises established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights instruments.

Older people have a fundamentalright to non-discrimination, and we need to consider explicitly ageism and age discrimination under this right. In today’s fast-paced, globalized and increasingly industrialized world, the elderly may be stereotyped as non-productive, and therefore irrelevant. This can lead to degrading treatment, inequality and abuse.

Older persons'right to befree from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatmentmay also be threatened. Much like discrimination, elder abuse is often a hidden phenomenon, but older people, and particularly older women, are often victims of neglect and physical and psychological violations. They may also suffer degrading attitudes by caregivers, civil servants or relatives who infantilize them.

Older persons’right to participationmay also be at risk because of prevailing negative images of the aged. Yet in reality the majority of older people are able to lead their lives autonomously. They are not necessarily more dependent than the population as a whole, and may have great value to the general population. Moreover, I wish to emphasize here that the rights of individuals do not rest on a calculation of their net input to society. Human rights are universal, which means everyone has a right to live free of want and fear. People age, but their rights remain the same for as long as they are alive.

Older persons have a right to an adequate standard of living, which is intrinsically linked with a number of rights, among them the right to work, the right to social security, the right to food, the right to health and the right to housing.

An adequate standard of living for older persons requires ensuring income security in the form of continued access to employment, if they wish, and to social security and social protection. It also means access to adequate healthcare that is sensitive to older persons’ specific needs, access to adequate social services, including long term care.

Measures should also be adopted to ensure support for older persons in exercising their legal capacity, including safeguards to prevent abuse. Older persons must be provided with guarantees to ensure their choices and best interests are taken into consideration in all matters relevant to their life — including medical treatment, residence, assets, relationships, and self-determination.

The role of OHCHR and human rights mechanisms

Since 2010, OHCHR has worked hard to include a human rights perspective in the UN ageing agenda, and has encouraged civil society organizations to actively participate in this effort. We contributed to the Report of the Secretary-General on Ageing, in July 2011. We have also organised a number of global and regional expert meetings as part of its very active participation in the ongoing processes for strengthening protection of the human rights of older persons, which are taking place both in Geneva and New York.

Thanks to discussion of the issue in the agenda of the Human Rights Council in 2012, the mandate of an Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons has been established. The mandate holder will soon be appointed.

In a world that faces many crises, it might be easy to neglect the rights, dignity and fundamental equality of older persons. It might be easy, but it would be wrong. Our human dignity and common humanity require us to create an environment that respects the wellbeing, security and human rights of all society's members. We must leave no one behind.

During the next few days you will have an opportunity to develop impetus and vision about important aspects of this area of concern. I look forward to hearing contributions from key United Nations agencies and NGOs from around the world and to the guidance you will provide for the future work of the Human Rights Council, the new Independent Expert, and the Open Ended Working Group looking into ways to strengthen the protection of the human rights of older persons.

Civil society organizations will be extremely helpful to this work. Previous efforts at standard-setting were successful largely because of the strong engagement and principled demands of civil society-- including voices from among the affected groups themselves. Your exchange of perspectives from diverse geographical, professional, cultural and personal points of view can guide us towards a profound vision of the rights and needs of older people.

Thank you.