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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Virtual debate “Human Rights of older persons in the age of COVID-19 and beyond”with the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the new Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons

12 May 2020

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Statement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet
Tuesday 12 May 14:00-15:00

Ambassador Skoknic and Ambassador Stadler, Chairs of Group of Friends of Older Persons in New York and Geneva,



I am pleased to join you in this timely and crucial discussion with respect to the human rights of older people and I thank the NGO Committee on Ageing for organizing it.

Let me warmly welcome officially Ms. Claudia Mahler, as she begins her mandate as the new Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.

I would also like to pay tribute to her predecessor, Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, for her outstanding work over the last six years.

Dear friends,

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our societies, our communities and ourselves, with dire and potentially long-lasting consequences.

My Office has been actively monitoring the human rights impact of the crisis across the world and working with partners to integrate human rights in UN humanitarian and socioeconomic responses.

All of us are going through unsettling times, but the virus is posing a particularly severe threat to the lives and health of older people.

Indeed, the fatality rate for older people is higher overall, and for those over 80, it is five times the global average.

Let us be clear: every life has equal value.

Our rights do not diminish with age.

We need to ensure that difficult medical decisions are guided by a commitment to dignity and the right to health, and based on medical need, ethical criteria and on the best available scientific evidence, rather than on age alone.

Less visible, but no less worrisome, are the broader effects of this crisis: health care denied for conditions unrelated to COVID-19; neglect and abuse in institutions and care facilities; an increase in poverty and unemployment; the dramatic impact on well-being and mental health, due to physical distancing and social isolation; and the trauma of stigma and discrimination.

I am particularly concerned about the situation of older people in care homes and institutions. In Europe, according to the World Health Organization, up to half of total deaths have been among those living in long-term care facilities.

Older people who are quarantined with family members or caregivers may face higher risks of violence, abuse, and neglect.

Older women may also be highly vulnerable, since they are often family and community care-givers.

Those living in precarious conditions – such as refugee camps, informal settlements and prisons – are particularly at risk.

But even though older people have been gravely affected by the pandemic, the response to it has often failed to adequately take their rights into account.

On the first of May, the Secretary-General issued a policy brief to give more visibility to the risks faced by older people during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as recommendations to address these challenges.

The policy brief also highlights the immeasurable contributions they make to their families and communities in various roles, including as caregivers, volunteers and community leaders.

And fundamentally, it asks us to rethink the way forward – to recover better together, across society and across generations.


This week, while many countries are still struggling with the pandemic, others have started to ease restrictions and develop roadmaps towards recovery.

While the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: when we recover, we must be better than we were before.

This crisis has taught us that a society can only be as strong as its weakest member.

We have the opportunity to build more inclusive, sustainable and age-friendly societies.

For that, we must place human rights of older people front and centre in our responses and recovery efforts.

This crisis has laid bare, and often amplified, many challenges that older people have been facing for years, such as discrimination based on older age, lack of social protection and access to health services, lack of autonomy and participation in decision-making, and risk of violence, neglect and abuse.

We need to invest more in ensuring economic and social rights – particularly in universal health coverage and universal social protection system – to improve the well-being and resilience of all, including older people.

We must also shift our mindset and challenge the ageist view of older people as frail, dependent and vulnerable.

The older population is an incredibly diverse group and they – we I should say – we have a tremendous potential to contribute to the recovery efforts.

We need to ensure that their voices, perspectives, and expertise are incorporated in policymaking, particularly where they will be most affected.

Last – but definitely not least – we are all in this together, so we all must be accountable for our actions. Or inactions.

Many countries lack adequate legislation to protect the rights of older people and to prevent discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, violence and abuse.

And there is no international convention dedicated to their human rights.

We need to build a stronger legal framework at both national and international levels, with a strong accountability mechanism, to protect the human rights of older people.

The Secretary-General has made a call to accelerate the efforts towards developing an international legal convention dedicated to the protection of their human rights.

We must urgently press on.

I look forward to working with you to stand up for the human rights of older people, raise their voices and ensure their meaningful participation in the COVID response and beyond.

Thank you.