(The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 38, Issue 4.)
The United Nations General Assembly established an Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) by resolution 65/182 on 21 December 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 by considering, as appropriate, the feasibility of further instruments and measures. The goal is to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons. The first session of the OEWGA took place on February 15, 2011, and subsequent sessions have taken place annually since then. A major issue repeatedly debated by the Working Group has been whether there is a need for a specialized convention on the rights of older persons. Many nations and virtually every participating NGO have argued that significant normative gaps and a lack of specificity hamper existing human rights instruments in protecting older persons. Many other nations, including the United States, argue that existing human rights instruments already cover older persons adequately and all we need is better implementation strategies. You can read the relevant documents and summaries of past meetings on the website of the OEWGA at: https://social.un.org/ageing-working-group. And yes, at the U.N., they do spell “Ageing” with an “e”.
Civil society, through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate for older persons, have played a major role in the Working Group’s discussion. The OEWGA invites their participation, and just as in the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the outcome of the Working Group’s deliberations will depend heavily on the strength of the voice of NGOs. NGO’s have been overwhelmingly in favor of a convention.
However, one problem faces NGOs. They lack a critical mass of organizations showing up to speak in favor of a convention. Numbers really do count. There are countless U.S. NGOs that advocate for or serve older persons. Most would never consider 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. See for example:
- The Global Alliance for the Rights of Older Persons, http://www.rightsofolderpeople.org 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:
- International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) – www.inpea.net
- International Longevity Centre (ILC) Global Alliance – www.ilc-alliance.org
- International Federation on Ageing (IFA) – www.ifa-fiv.org
- International Association of Homes and Services for the Ageing (IAHSA) – www.iahsa.net
- International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (IAGG) – www.iagg.info
- HelpAge International – www.helpage.org
- **AGE Platform Europe – www.age-platform.eu
- Age UK – www.ageuk.org.uk
- AARP – www.aarpinternational.org
· HelpAge International has been an especially vocal leader in these efforts. See especially, A New Convention on the Rights of Older People: A Concrete Proposal (http://www.helpage.org/silo/files/a-new-convention-on-the-rights-of-older-people-a-concrete-proposal.pdf ); and Strengthening Older Peoples Rights: Toward a Convention (http://www.helpage.org/silo/files/strengthening-older-peoples-rights-towards-a-un-convention.pdf ).
· Normative Standards in International Human Rights Law in Relation to Older Persons - Analytical Outcome Paper (August 2012), prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights available at: http://social.un.org/ageing-working-group/documents/OHCHRAnalyticalOutcomePaperonOldePersonsAugust2012.doc
· Report of the Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of all Human Rights by Older Persons (September 2016) available at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/ageing/news/2016/09/report-of-the-independent-expert-on-the-enjoyment-of-all-human-rights-by-older-persons/
Second, the next meeting of the Working Group is scheduled for July 5-7, 2017, at the United Nations in New York. Participation is open to NGOs accredited by the OEWGA. Accreditation is granted to organizations by the and not to individuals. Some organizations, such as the American Bar Association, have a consultative status with the U.N. and are automatically accredited, but most organizations apply for accreditation in order to participate in the sessions of the Working Group. Accreditation to the OEWG need only be done once and applies for all sessions. It is not difficult. By the beginning of May, the web page of the OEWGA should have an invitation and pre-registration for NGOs desiring accreditation with a link to the application process. 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 against criteria that have been established and notifies of its recommendation. One of those criteria is equitable geographic distribution. The OEWGA, by motion and vote, makes accreditation final. If you are approved, your organization can register up to 5 representatives to meetings of the Working Group.
Third, you will find tremendous professional benefit from participating in the process. You’ll learn more about aging advocacy and innovative services from other NGOs around the world; make new contacts with both U.S. and international advocates and leaders in aging services; and get to see the United Nations in action from the inside out. There is an expense in traveling to and visiting New York, but if that challenge can be met, you can make a difference. Give it a try.