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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Virtual commemoration of the International Day of Older Persons, 2020

01 October 2020

45th session of the Human Rights Council

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

1 October 2020

Dear colleagues,

We are commemorating the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Older Persons, at a very challenging time for us all – and particularly for older people.

In terms of medical harms and the fear of contagion, as well as social isolation, loneliness, poverty and unemployment, older people are deeply vulnerable – especially those living in care homes and institutions.

In many – perhaps most – countries, the pandemic has exposed economic, social and legal systems that have long neglected to prioritize the protection of the rights and dignity of older persons – including their rights to health, social protections and decent housing.

As a matter of urgency, we need to encourage all States to fully integrate a focus on older people into their policy responses to COVID-19.

In many countries, there is a clear need for social care reforms that prioritise individualised support to older people, and promote their full inclusion in their communities.

Looking forward, as society build backs from this devastating pandemic, we need to seize the opportunity to build back better. Not to return to the previous status quo, which created gaping entry points for the virus to exploit or, even worse, to accept our current context as the “new normal”. 

We need to build systems that uphold and advance the human rights of older people, and empower them to live full, free lives, in dignity and equality.

To do this, we must shift our narratives around older persons – moving away from an ageist, paternalistic view to one anchored in full respect for the equal rights and dignity of people of all ages.  Older people are as diverse as any other population. Assuming that they are necessarily frail and dependent is not only inaccurate, it is harmful to all of society.

Older persons are an essential element of the solutions our societies so urgently need today.  Older persons can bring crucial experience and expertise. They may have tremendous potential to contribute – and many already do, contributing actively to the pandemic response, as well as to the wellbeing of their families and communities.  We need to expand, rather than diminish, the role they play in all aspects of our economy and social life. We need to support their contributions at work, in the community and at home.

 We must also address structural barriers to better protection of the human rights of older persons in the longer-term.  This includes doing much more work to legislate, uphold and deliver economic and social rights – such as social protections – and civil and political rights, such as ensuring their full participation in decision-making or upholding their autonomy and independence.

The lack of a dedicated international protection regime for the rights of older persons, is perhaps the most obvious and urgent normative gap.  We need to accelerate current efforts towards developing a new international human rights convention on the rights of older persons, which will give us much needed international standards to guide our actions.

The proposed new UN Decade of Healthy Ageing 2020-2030 could be a key global platform for greater collaboration and action by all of us – States, UN and intergovernmental entities, and civil society.

More inclusive, equitable and age-friendly societies will be more resilient, as well as safer, more prosperous and more fair.  In a year that has seen terrible harm done to older people, I hope we can use today's event as a springboard for strengthened efforts to advance their rights and dignity.

Thank you.