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As the world ages, more must be done to protect the rights of older persons

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The UN’s expert on the human rights of the elderly describes the key issues she is dealing with and how she hopes to build support to advance her important agenda. Español

Rosa Kornfeld-Matte
24 March 2016

The world is currently experiencing an unprecedented demographic revolution to an ageing population, and no regions are exempt. Globally, there are approximately 700 million persons aged 60 years old and over, and this figure will double by 2025. By 2050, older persons will constitute 20%of the global population—higher than it has ever been. In light of these projections, in 2013 the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council established a first-ever mandate of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.

The main objective of this mandate is to contribute to strengthening the promotion and protection of the human rights of older persons. Ageing affects populations in distinctly different ways, with key issues such as elder abuse, adequate care facilities, and access to quality health care. The mandate’s scope is sufficiently broad to encompass not only an assessment of the implementation of existing international instruments in relation to older persons—including the identification of both best practices and gaps worldwide—but also action towards raising awareness of the challenges faced by older persons in the enjoyment of their rights. More specifically, it also comprises an assessment of the human rights implications of the implementation of one of the main political documents dedicated to older persons, the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing, endorsed 14 years earlier by the General Assembly.

To fulfil this mandate, I have chosen a comprehensive approach to ageing, presented in my first annual report in 2014. This integrated approach considers international legal and policy frameworks to understand the complexity and heterogeneity of ageing, identify the needs of older persons, raise awareness of the challenges they face, and analyse how their situation has been incorporated in  policies, legislations, plans and programmes.

In addition, my work has identified some issues to be addressed as a matter of priority, such as the autonomy and care of older persons. These two complementary themes have been the subject of my first thematic report presented to the Human Rights Council in September 2015. The report contains an analysis of international and regional instruments that address the autonomy and care of older persons and a study of the content and scope of these concepts. In addition, the report includes a series of specific and targeted recommendations to assist States in implementing appropriate and effective frameworks that strengthen the autonomy of older persons, such as the adoption of national policies and action plans on ageing that include specific provisions on autonomy and care.  

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Matt Cardy/Getty Images (All rights reserved)

National policies and action plans for aging should emphasize autonomy as well as care.


These recommendations will ensure their active involvement and participation in all spheres of life and improve their well-being and quality of life, as well as ensuring a human rights-based approach to care settings.  

The focus can no longer be centred on disease and functional dependence, but rather on care that promotes the autonomy and dignity of older persons.The report highlights that in light of the intensity of ageing in many societies, there is a need to ensure that older persons are enabled to lead autonomous lives. This also calls for a paradigm shift that focuses on the inclusion of older persons in society at all levels, encompassing age-friendly communities and environments. Regarding care, the focus can no longer be centred on disease and functional dependence, but rather on people-centred models of care that promote the autonomy and dignity of older persons.

Other issues have also been considered a priority, mainly abuse and violence against older persons, with particular attention to older women, and climate change and its disproportionate effects on the elderly, including the importance of their inclusion in any disaster risk reduction and resilience policy. In addition, it is very critical to promote a human rights approach in the care of older persons with dementia.

The methodology that I have used is based on cooperation and dialogue with all actors, including member states, international and regional organisations, civil society organisations, the academic sector, the elderly and all stakeholders in all regions. This cooperation is allowing me to take into account the views of all different stakeholders as well as information sharing on best practices and challenges in the implementation of existing instruments worldwide. In accordance with my mandate, we have developed two questionnaires sent to all actors to identify how states have included a human rights based approach in the implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing and on the existence of best practices.

The close cooperation has also been materialized through country visits.

The selection of countries for visits is based on a set of criteria, such as the existence of national legislation, policy or regulatory frameworks, institutions and practices, in order to identify best practices and gaps in the implementation of existing laws related to the rights of older persons. This selection also reflects a geographical balance. Therefore I have conducted three official visits at the invitation of the governments of Slovenia, Austria and Mauritius. These visits provided first-hand information and were a unique opportunity to assess the situation of older persons in the field. The conclusions and recommendations of each visit have been presented in three different reports to the Human Rights Council in its last regular session. Visits to Latin America and Asia are also planned for this year.  

With the wide scope of this mandate and in order to contribute to finding solutions and provide recommendations to overcome all the challenges currently faced by the elderly around the world, I need the continued support of all actors. Much remains to be done. The first year and a half in the exercise of my mandate has allowed me to observe that without cooperation it is impossible to cover the various facets of ageing and identify practices at various levels of governments that could be replicated in other regions of the world.

This year will be critical for the mandate, as the result of all the work done so far will be presented to the Human Rights Council in a comprehensive report next September. Until then, I am seeking to continuously engage with different actors and develop synergies to achieve common goals to ensure that all persons age with dignity and security.

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