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November 17, 2019

Emerging Human Rights Perspective of Aging

Now is the time for NGOs that serve elders in the U.S. to consider human rights.

Now is the time for NGOs that serve elders in the U.S. to consider human rights.

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 41, Issue 2.)

By Charles Sabatino

We all wish for good things in aging but what do we have a right to? An important working group within the United Nations has struggled with that question for the last 10 years. 

The UN General Assembly established an Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) by resolution in 2010, with a mandate to consider the existing international framework of the human rights of older persons and identify possible gaps and how best to address them, including, as appropriate, the feasibility of further “instruments and measures.” That phrase covers everything from an aspirational memo to a binding U.N. convention. The ultimate goal is to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons. But is that done by paying better attention to applying existing human rights conventions and principles to older persons, or is a more targeted, specialized convention needed?  

From the first annual meeting of the OEWGA in 2011 to the present, the major issue repeatedly debated has been whether there is a need for a specialized binding convention on the rights of older persons. Virtually every participating non-governmental organization (NGO) and many nations have argued that existing human rights instruments lack both normative standards and operational frameworks effectively applicable to older persons and therefor fail to recognize older persons as clear rights holders in all aspects of human rights laws.  Ageism still lurks in well-intended efforts by nations to take care of the elderly, as opposed to empowering them as rights holders.  The United States, along with many other nations, argue that existing human rights instruments already cover older persons adequately and all we need is better implementation strategies.

Which way the pendulum will swing in the debate depends to a large extent on civil society-- that is, the NGOs that advocate for and provide services to older persons. NGOs have played a major role in the Working Group’s discussion and the OEWGA invites NGOs to participate via a fairly simple credentialing process. The current process parallels that which drove the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities where the successful outcome depended heavily on the strength of the voice of NGOs. In the current deliberations, NGOs have been overwhelmingly in favor of a convention, but they still lack the critical mass necessary to make the member states of the U.N. to heed their voice.

Now is the time for the countless NGOs that advocate for or serve older persons in the U.S. to consider human rights, even if a human rights perspective has never been part of their thinking. Most probably never considered playing a role in United Nations affairs, let alone even try to understand the working of such a complex organization. However, it is easier than you think.

First, several organizations have been doing this work since the start of the Working Group. They have developed materials that explain the issues and can assist in learning the procedural niceties of the U.N. For example:

 The Global Alliance for the Rights of Older Persons, Established in 2011, GAROP was born out of the need to strengthen the rights and voice of older people globally. The Alliance is the result of the collaborative efforts of nine organizations:

o   International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) –

o   International Longevity Centre (ILC) Global Alliance –

o   International Federation on Ageing (IFA) –

o   International Association of Homes and Services for the Ageing (IAHSA) –

o   International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) –

o   HelpAge International –

o   AGE Platform Europe –

o   Age UK –

o   AARP –

The next step will be to get your organization accredited to attend the next meeting of the Working Group, scheduled for April 6-9, 2020, at the UN headquarters in New York. The Working Group has posted instructions in the past, but if not posted, use the contact email on the Working Group’s web page to request them. Accreditation is granted only to organizations and not to individuals. You only have to be accredited once to attend all the future meetings. The application asks for information about the competence of your organization and the relevance of its activities to the work of the OEWGA. If your group works to serve or advocate for elders in need, you probably qualify. The UN Secretariat reviews applications and makes a recommendation.  The OEWGA, by motion and vote, makes the final accreditation decision. If you are approved, your organization can register up to five representatives to meetings of the Working Group.

Past meetings have focused on particular human rights topics as they apply to older persons, such as equality and non-discrimination; violence, neglect and abuse; autonomy and independence; long-term and palliative care; and social protection and social security. Future topics will likely address matters such as access to justice, health care, and housing, but all these subjects are overlapping and interdependent, so the deliberations are not siloed.

Participation does not require you to do anything more than observe or, if you wish to make a comment for your organization, put your name in the cue to deliver comments (called “interventions”) to the topic at hand. Written submissions are also invited on the specific topics that the Working Group plans to address on its agenda. You will find tremendous professional benefit from participating in the process both in terms of learning more about the U.N. processes as well as experiencing the diversity of international aging advocacy.

Keep in mind that UN processes move slowly.  Movement toward a majority consensus on recommending a convention, if successful, and the process of drafting one is likely to be a long-term, multi-year process, so you are not too late to get on the train.  You can read the relevant documents and summaries of past meetings on the website of the OEWGA at: (And yes, at the U.N., they do spell “Ageing” with an “e”).

Other Resources:

 The author is director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, which has participated as an accredited NGO in the meetings of U.N Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing since 2012.

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