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A global shift: the ageing of the world’s population

On 1 October the world celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons. It is a significant anniversary because during these two decades the world’s demographic profile has changed more dramatically than at any time previously.

On 1 October the world celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons © UNThe world’s population is now as old as it has ever been.  One in every ten persons is aged 60 or more: by 2050, that figure will rise to one in five.  In a remarkably short space of time, the world is facing not just increasing life expectancy due to child survival, but also falling fertility. More people live longer lives and they require age-friendly environments, health care and services of all kinds. The implications are profound.
In a statement to mark the International Day of Older Persons, Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay noted that this “radical demographic shift has caught many policymakers off-guard.”

As a consequence, millions of older persons face unequal treatment, isolation, chronic poverty, unemployment, violence and abuse, limited access to justice and lack of social and political mechanisms to ensure their participation.

“Non discrimination is paramount to the human rights agenda,” Pillay says, “however old age has yet to be featured prominently as one of the several grounds of discrimination at legislative and policy levels. Positive measures are necessary to eradicate discrimination and exclusion of older persons and to ensure access to services according to their needs.” 

In many regions of the world, where pensions and social security systems tend to be non-existent or support only a few, many people are forced to continue working to ensure their survival.  In other regions, active ageing is encouraged through measures such as the prevention of chronic diseases, ensuring the accessibility of buildings and services to all and providing long term care.

The High Commissioner drew particular attention to the plight of older women “among the most vulnerable individuals, many of them homeless or without a right to inherit from their parents, husbands or children.”

Pillay says that she believes existing human rights instruments can be used more effectively to engineer the fundamental policy changes which must be made to accommodate this turnaround in the global population profile. “The question is not whether current international human rights standards are applicable to older people: clearly they are. The question is whether they can be given practical effect through legislation, tools and other means to effectively and systematically address the critical situation of older persons.”

She pointed to the array of mechanisms already available including the Covenants on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and on Civil and Political Rights which include provisions for the protection of 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.

 “Older persons are assets of society and can contribute significantly to the development process if given the opportunity”, Pillay says.

“We must all accept the inevitability of ageing”, she says. “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.”

1 October 2010