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End of Mission Statement by the United Nations Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, Ms. Claudia MAHLER, on her visit to Finland

Helsinki, 4 November 2021

Members of the Press and Media Representatives,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In my capacity as United Nations Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, I conclude today my official visit to Finland that took place from 26 October to 4 November 2021. As you are all aware, the Covid-19 Pandemic has made travel almost impossible but I am pleased I was now able to undertake a country visit since I began my mandate in May 2020, and that my first country visit also coincides with the first special procedures’ visit ever conducted to Finland. I would also like to warmly congratulate Finland for being elected to the Human Rights Council for the period of 2022 to 2024.

I am an independent expert who reports to the United Nations Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, and advises on progress, opportunities and challenges encountered in the realization of the human rights of older persons worldwide. I am part of the mechanisms of Special Procedures of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner and appointed by the Human Rights Council to assess, to the extent possible, and report back.

I would like to begin by expressing my sincere gratitude to the Government of Finland for accepting my request to visit its country to assess, in a spirit of dialogue and cooperation, the level of enjoyment of all human rights by all older persons, the opportunities and existing necessities and challenges; and for the cooperation extended to me prior to and throughout the visit.

Please allow me to seize this opportunity to sincerely thank also the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Finnish Human Rights Institution and in particular the Human Rights Centre, as well as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva for their considerable efforts in organizing this visit as well as for all the tremendous support I enjoyed in order to ensure the success of my mission.

During my visit, I was privileged to meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Social Affairs and Health, the Minister of Family Affairs and Social Security, as well as with relevant officials and technical staff from respective ministries, representatives from the Ministry of Environment as well as from the Ministry of Justice, representatives from advisory boards for the rights of persons with disabilities, gender equality and Romani affairs, the National Supervisory Authority, members of the Finnish Parliament Network on Human Rights, the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and the Deputy Ombudsman. I also met with regional and local government authorities from Imatra, representatives from civil society organizations, non-governmental social welfare organisations, representatives of the academia and universities, private companies/businesses, social workers and volunteers working with older persons and I also met with older persons themselves and the organisations representing them.

I have also visited a number of intensive sheltered housing, care centers and related institutions, and met with older persons living in different settings and the personnel who keep the system running. I also had exchanges with the community and representatives of the local authority.

Please allow me to convey my deep appreciation to all who took the time to meet with me and for the consistent warm welcome extended to me. I was so touched by the incredible warmth of your reception and your generosity I experienced here in Finland.

I am here to share with you today some preliminary and I must say very provisional remarks on some of the issues that, along with others, will be explored in more detail in my comprehensive country visit report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which will be submitted in September 2022.

I would like to start with a few remarks with regard to my mandate -the human rights of older persons. My mandate looks at the reality of whether or not older persons can actual exercise all their human rights. This is an all-encompassing approach that cuts across several sectors and issues as stipulated in my mandate beyond mere non-discrimination. So, there are a number of issues and themes, I regularly look at such as age discrimination, intersectionality, care and long-term care, social protection , adequate standard of living, including poverty alleviation measures, lifelong learning and digital divide; violence, maltreatment and abuse. That’s why I analyse the existing legislative, administrative and policy framework and its practice in this regard and assess whether the basic binding minimum human rights standards are actually available for all older persons, regardless of whether they belong to specific groups such as older women, older LGBTI persons, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities or older refugees or migrants.

The key features of the human rights based approach is that the global minimum rights standards are translated by each Member State into its domestic laws, but equally if not more importantly also into its internal policies, programmes and practices. This kind of holistic implementation goes far beyond resources and is a means to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.

Rather than applying a welfare approach that creates dependency, I advocate for a human rights based approach which contributes to enable, empower and value people to realize all their rights in dignity. This constitutes a paradigm shift which views older persons as rights holders and not only as beneficiaries to services.

The ensuing preliminary observations neither reflect all the issues presented to me, nor all the initiatives undertaken by the Government of Finland.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start with the demographic data and figures:

Since 1981, the number of persons aged 65 years and over has nearly doubled. While the population under 65 is steadily expected to decline, the share of persons over 65 years old will increase from the current 22 percent to 26 percent by 2030 and to 29 percent by 2060. With a life expectance of 79 years for men and 84 years for women, Finland has one of the oldest populations in Europe. In 2020, the number of persons aged over 100 exceeded 1,000. By 2065, the number of people aged 75 years and older is projected to exceed one million.

These figures in conjunction with declining fertility rates and slowing population growth, while in line with the global demographic trend of an essential age-structural change, require urgent adequate action to meet the challenges of this fundamental change and to ensure that this large segment of the Finnish population are viewed as active and positive contributors and not as burdens to society.

Please let me also add, the ability to make a mind shift requires awareness, acknowledgment and commitment to protect the rights of all older persons and to urgently take into account their concerns and prioritize their needs.

With the exceptions of the Convention on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and the Convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances, Finland is a party to most human rights treaties. I therefore encourage Finland to act as a human rights champion globally including the human rights of older persons. Finland has ratified the Council of Europe’s Revised Social Charter with its Article 23 and has ratified the additional protocol which provides a collective complaint mechanism and has made a declaration enabling national NGOs to submit collective complaints. 

I am encouraged that following the care home crisis in 2019, the Finnish Parliament granted special funding for the promotion and monitoring of the rights of older persons, including funding for staff to both the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Human Rights Centre.  In addition, I commend Finland for the adoption of a cross –government National Programme on Ageing 2030 as well as the ongoing reform of the healthcare and social services. I acknowledge the efforts to increase the number of healthcare personnel per client, expedite the delivery of mostly health services to older persons and change of administrative structure from the municipalities to the districts. However, while the Act on Special Care for People with Intellectual Disabilities and the Mental Health Act contain provisions on promoting the right to self-determination and procedural provisions on restrictions of fundamental and human rights, there is a need for similar legal safeguards for services for older persons.

The health and social services provided in municipalities and districts seem to differ considerably depending on the regions and settings such as home care services, institutions or other care arrangements.

All changes need to have a person centred approach in line with the human rights based approach which looks at the diversity of individuals and provides multiple options from which to choose the most appropriate care based on individual needs.  Another positive aspect of the welfare and care system includes the monitoring mechanisms which are already in place including the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health and the Regional State Administrative authorities.

I am encouraged by the continued work of the long standing monitoring mechanisms of the various ombudspersons and I am looking forward to the addition of a newly established ombudsperson for older persons which should raise continued awareness to the human rights of older persons. I am further encouraged that the Finnish National Human Rights Institution, which includes the Human Rights Centre, its Human Rights Delegation and the Parliamentary Ombudsman, already focuses on monitoring the human rights of older persons.  

During Covid-19, the Government of Finland implemented a large number of guidelines with recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus at the national and local levels, many of which targeted older persons. In some cases, despite their intention, they caused insecurity with regard to their implementation, when measures to protect older persons resulted in the restriction of their fundamental and human rights. With regard to the Communicable Diseases Act (Section 17), the Deputy Ombudsman stated that other than in situations of quarantine and isolation, binding visiting bans on housing units, including in care institutions and housing service units, could not be lawfully prohibited or restricted.  On the other hand, the Deputy-Ombudsman also clarified that the guidelines from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (press release 55/2020) to avoid contact with people over the age of 70 as far as possible did not constitute age discrimination.   

I also learnt that as monitoring mechanisms during the Covid-19 pandemic including to institutions were in many instances reduced or at a standstill, older persons’ human rights were at stake. Incidents reported to me included that during the pandemic an older married couple were not able to live together or that during the emergency, close relatives were barred from attending a funeral when the employees in charge of a service center felt they had the right and obligation to prohibit their attendance.

Physical distancing restrictions caused the loss of regular information networks for many older persons. Online information and services made the digital divide even more obvious. I received direct testimony from many older persons who rely on digital devises and support from public libraries that closed during different waves of the health crisis. This caused significant limitations to older persons with no electronic devices of their own or to those who lack digital connectivity and to those who seek additional moral support to use the internet. Older women are generally more likely to be digitally illiterate, with large disparities between rural and urban areas. There continues to be an urgent need for alternatives to online services or regulations to institutionalize support with regard of digital services.

While the equality Ombudsman provided me with some statistics related to the number of individual complaints he received from 2018 to 2021, including related to age discrimination, ageism was rarely mentioned and only superficially in the context of general prejudice toward older persons. I therefore would urge the government of Finland to review its new laws, strategies and action plans, especially as they relate to older persons, with a view to ensure that ageism and ageist practices are not perpetuated or tolerated.

With regard to older persons with disabilities, the justifications for the different treatments applied to older persons who acquire a disability in later life or for persons with a disability who get older were unclear.  The legal applications and measures for older persons with disabilities, who are disproportionately represented among persons with disabilities, seem to be covered under different protections systems, linked to a service oriented regime rather than one rights based on the Convention of the rights of persons with disabilities.  Most persons with dementia are part of the older population in Finland, but unfortunately dementia is not always viewed as a disability but as an age-related issue, and therefore do not receive the adequate relevant extensive services accorded to the Disability Services Act. 

Under social protection and social security, women continue to be disadvantaged by receiving lower salaries than those of their male counterparts which in part causes the gender pension gap. Despite a slight reduction of 2.2 percent from 2002, women’s pension are on average one third lower than men’s pensions. Women traditionally continue to be the main care providers which can be unpaid and take on occupations in the social sector with lower financial compensation than in the technical and industrial sectors.  The reform of the childcare leave could reduce or address part of the disparities in the pension gap in the future.  

Elder abuse remains a taboo and specific issues related to older women are not particularly taken into account in discussions related to domestic violence or violence against women. While the Istanbul convention of the Council of Europe seems to be well implemented, it does not seem to be used in cases related to older women.

In relation to participation in decision-making processes, I was pleased to learn that, in general, the authorities consult with older persons and their organizations and there is an established formal consultation process and mechanism to include council of older persons in municipalities.

One of the issues which I always stress in my reports and has also been pointed out in the former Independent Expert’s country visit and thematic reports is the importance of providing disaggregated data to inform, design and monitor adequate rights-based policies and responses for older persons with different ethnic background.  While I welcome the efforts of the National Institute for Health and Welfare to compile disaggregated data by age and gender, in some cases, for example in statistics related to prisons, very often the age group above 65 is regarded as one homogeneous age group, despite the increase in life expectancy due to improved health care and other factors. With regard to data related to older persons of migrant or indigenous background, I was informed that disaggregated data based on ethnic background was not collected to safeguard their identities and because all Finnish residents were equal regardless of their ethnicities.

I also noticed during my visit that the Finnish system regards and treats older persons as a homogenous group despite the fact that older persons constitute a very diverse group with multiple individual layers. This is visible when taking into account the intersectionality of older persons, especially those with an LGBTI, indigenous or ethnic backgrounds. The provision of services should take into account specific needs to provide culturally sensitive health and care services. Designing appropriate and culturally sensitive services for persons with dementia with a mother tongue other than Finnish should take into consideration that in older age, persons with dementia revert back to their original language and lose their previous ability to communicate in the official language. Older  lesbian,  gay,  bisexual,  transgender  and  intersex  persons  are  one  of  the  most vulnerable groups, receive insufficient services and end up with poor health outcomes. They are also one of the most invisible groups in old age due to the social stigma and are largely ignored by national laws and policies and by society at large. They may experience multiple forms of discrimination due to the  stigma linked to their sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

Members of the press, Ladies and gentlemen,

I commend Finland’s considerable efforts to include older persons in society and to provide them with health and social services. It has a comprehensive social protection system and the care and social services are undergoing a big reform. The goals for the future should be the inclusion of the diversity of the older persons in specific measures and a person-centred and individual approach.

However, the State’s commitment to the rights of older persons needs to be reflected in everyday practice. Furthermore, the State has an opportunity to adjust the legislation in the areas of legal capacity, health and social care, and embrace the paradigm shift to see older persons as rights holders.

As I have observed at the beginning, my remarks today are of a preliminary nature and do certainly not cover all issues in a comprehensive manner. I will further analyse the information received in connection with my visit and elaborate on my findings in my report to the United Nations Human Rights Council to be submitted in September 2022.

Let me conclude by reiterating that I am very grateful to the Government of Finland for inviting me to visit this country, enabling me to deepen my understanding of the situation of older persons. This invitation – and what I have learnt during my visit – indicates a strong high-level commitment to human rights and political will to major changes in services for older persons, but the focus on older persons issues as a human rights topic need to be increased in Finland. I hope that my visit and my report will assist the country to continue advancing towards the establishment of a truly inclusive and age friendly society.