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December 01, 2016

Human Rights of Older Persons

Charlie Sabatino

(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 38, Issue 2.)


The Importance of Momentum in 2016

This year the Commission continued its participation in the annual meetings of the U.N. Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing in collaboration with the official ABA liaison Professor Bill Mock of John Marshall Law School. The Working Group has continued to engage in extensive inquiry and debate about whether the U.N. should pursue a separate convention on the rights of older persons, or instead, seek to strengthen the enforcement of existing universal international standards as they may apply to older persons. That question has remained a threshold sticking point to consensus.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. has not been a supporter of a convention. The U.S. prides itself on its commitment to innovation in protecting the rights and quality of life of older Americans. However, the U.S. historically has been very reluctant to allow itself to be subject to any laws or rules created and enforced by non-U.S. authorities. Nevertheless, treaties or conventions that are widely adopted by other nations do tend to affect the legal thinking, analysis, and practices under American law, oftentimes in profound ways. Thus, the ABA Commission has continued its work despite U.S. reluctance.

The Working Group met this December 2016, with the most prominent keynote speaker being Rosa Kornfeld-Mattee, “the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons,” a position created by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2013. Her report set forth the findings, conclusions, and recommendations of her 3-year investigation. The core recommendation of her report calls on States

to step up their efforts to determine the best way to strengthen the protection of the human rights of older persons and to consider the various proposals that have been made, notably the elaboration of a convention on the rights of older persons. It is also hoped that the Working Group will in due course present to the General Assembly a proposal containing, inter alia, the main elements that should be included in an international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons, which are not currently addressed sufficiently by existing mechanisms and therefore require further international protection….

The inspirational chair of the Working Group, Mr. Mateo Estrémé of Argentina, called on member States and civil society to begin the task of defining the elements of a human rights instrument that will respect, promote, and ensure the human rights of older persons. In the ensuing discussion among State representatives and civil society organizations, the Commission offered elements of a right of access to justice that are necessary for the enjoyment of that right by older persons.

In the coming year, we expect much more effort to articulate the nature and scope of human rights as they apply to the unique circumstances of older persons. Oft repeated by speakers during this meeting was the fact that by 2050, for the first time, there will be more older persons than children under the age of 15 worldwide, and it is projected that the number of older persons will more than double from 900 million currently to nearly 2 billion. The pressing demographic shift increases the sense of urgency to act sooner than later.

While the efforts at the U.N. continue, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) stepped up efforts to add signatories to the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons, adopted in June 2015, the first ever regional human rights convention addressing older persons. In the coming year, the Commission will be advocating for a resolution to be adopted by the ABA House of Delegates calling on the U.S. president to sign and the Senate to ratify the OAS convention.

Where to Go for Further Information

For the latest on international activities, see the Commission’s International Rights of Older Persons Resources webpage at: ■

Charlie Sabatino