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Seminar on the Human Rights of Older Persons - Statement by Birgit Van Hout, Regional Representative for Europe

BRUSSELS (13 April  2018)

Good morning,

I have the honor and the pleasure of welcoming you to our seminar on the human rights of older persons in Europe. I am very grateful to AGE Platform Europe for partnering with us to make this a reality. In Europe, examining the rights of older persons is overdue and has merit in and of itself. We also hope that this seminar will enable civil society to contribute substantively to the discussions taking place in the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing.


It is estimated that, by 2050, over 20 per cent of the world's population will be 60 or older. Currently, already 25 percent of the persons living in Europe are over 60 years old. The rights of older persons are of course a matter of principle.

However, the sheer numbers provide a further, compelling reason to pay greater attention to the specific needs and challenges of older persons, as well as to their potential. It is essential that we recognize the contribution older women and men make to our societies. It is also time to tackle some difficult topics, like elder abuse, neglect, discrimination and institutionalization. 

The international legal framework

The human rights of older persons are protected by various binding international and regional human rights treaties. I am thinking of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We are very fortunate to have the Chair of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Virginia Bras Gomes, with us today.

Depending on the sex of the older person, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, may also apply. In case of an older person with a disability, the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and, if the older person belongs to an ethnic, racial or religious minority, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. All these instruments include provisions that protect the human rights of older persons.

Having said that, while all core international human rights treaties have strong anti-discrimination clauses which apply to all grounds, the treaties I just mentioned, do not explicitly address age discrimination. It is this absence that has led the UN General Assembly to establish an Open-ended Working Group on the rights of older persons with the aim of exploring how to comprehensively protect the rights of older persons.

One of the options on the table, as we know, would be to draft a new treaty – just like we have the Convention on the Rights of the Child which addresses the specific needs of that population group. The UN Human Rights Office serves as Secretariat, together with UN DESA, to this working group. We are fortunate to have our colleague Rio Hada joining us from our UN Human Rights headquarters who can brief us on the latest insights from the Working Group. Currently, however, there is no international consensus on the need for a new treaty on the rights of older persons.

Several international mechanisms can examine if countries respect the human rights of older persons. All core treaties have treaty monitoring bodies that review States' progress. Unfortunately, treaty bodies do not receive much information on how the rights of older persons are respected, not from the State party and not from civil society. So, my first call to you would be to step up civil society contributions to all relevant treaty bodies – not just the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – so that the experts in these bodies can ask the right questions from your Governments and formulate pertinent recommendations specific to the rights of older persons.

In addition to the monitoring by the treaty bodies, I would like to highlight the role of the Independent Expert of the Human Rights Council, who can send urgent appeals or allegation letters to any State and who carries out field visits. Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte (Chile) was appointed in May 2014 as the first mandate-holder.

Elder abuse

One of priority areas the Special Rapporteur has identified is elder abuse. Elder abuse may consist of physical, sexual, psychological and financial abuse as well as intentional or unintentional neglect and abandonment. Elder abuse is a serious violation of human rights. Beyond elder abuse, we also know that isolation and loneliness are on the rise in Western society more generally and that this may lead to the social exclusion of older persons.


The Universal Declaration on Human Rights proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It is, however, evident that the enjoyment of human rights diminishes with age, due to the preconceived notion that older persons are somehow less productive, less valuable to society, and a burden to the economy and to younger generations.
In addition, there is a history of treating older persons as passive objects of "protection" and paternalistic measures. This type of structural prejudice against older persons is called ageism and it manifests itself in laws, policies, practice and attitudes.


There is discrimination relating to employment, pensions, health, justice and political participation. It can be seen, for example, in age-specific requirements for the allocation of goods and services. Older persons losing their jobs are less likely to find a new job than younger persons. We are witnessing also the deprivation of decision-making authority over medical care, personal finances and property, and sometimes the denial of rights, such as the right to marriage.

From Care to Support

We need to examine fundamentally the lenses through which we – and policy – view matters related to older persons. We need to shift our thinking away from a "charity" or "pity" approach to a human rights-based approach. This means moving away from public interventions of "care"" or "assistance" towards the idea of "support".

Support is the act of providing help or assistance to someone who requires it to carry out daily activities and to participate in society. Support must ensure that older persons can live their lives independently, and exercise control over their own lives, with assistance where needed.

The principle of support is deeply embedded in all cultures and communities and the basis of all our social networks. Everyone needs support from others, at some stage, to participate in society with dignity. Then how come that, in the context of older persons, the notion of support is so marginal still?

I believe that support has the potential to become a springboard, not simply a safety net, focused on helping people to preserve control over their own lives, to make social and economic contributions and to stay safe and well. The benefits of this approach will accrue to the whole society.

Support is a normal part of community life, with families serving as the first source of support for everyone. For many older persons, family support serves as a bridge to access other assistance needed to fully enjoy their human rights.

However, when no other options are available, and families are the sole source of support, the autonomy of older persons and their family members is reduced. Those being supported have no choice or control over the assistance they require to pursue their life plans, and questions of overprotection and conflict of interest commonly arise. Families — especially the poorest — are also under significant pressure as unpaid familial support also affects social relationships, income levels and the general well-being of the household. Women and girls are disproportionately affected, because in practice they continue to be the main providers of unpaid work in the households in Europe, reducing their freedom and choices to pursue their own life plans.

The absence of appropriate support systems further increases the risk of segregation and institutionalization. As the UN Human Rights Office and based on international law and jurisprudence, it is our goal to enhance support for the transition from institutionalization to community-based care.


Autonomy is a principle of international human rights law, that is enshrined in several international treaties and should be applied to older persons. Autonomy means taking decisions independently in relation to property, income, finance, place of residence, health, medical treatment or care, and funeral arrangements, with appropriate support.

One regional instrument provides guidance as to how we should interpret autonomy: it is the Council of Europe Recommendation on the "Promotion of human rights of older persons".Autonomy stretches from the right to participate fully in social, cultural, educational and training activities, as well as in public life; over the right to privacy and family life; and exercising one's legal capacity, including by appointing a trusted third party of one's own choice to help with the decisions. This also means adopting safeguards to avoid abuse.

The United Nations Principles for Older Persons refer to the principle of independence to describe the importance for older persons to have access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing and health care, through the provision of income, family and community support and self-help. This means, radically reframing people as "subjects" instead of "objects" of rights.

Multiple forms of discrimination

Discrimination can be magnified when an older person belongs to a group that is already in a situation of vulnerability or stigma. Older persons with disabilities, LGBTI older persons, or belonging to an ethnic or racial minority can face compounded forms of negative treatment.  Multiple discrimination based on intersecting grounds proves harder to tackle.  But it is crucial that it be tackled.

The transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including its Sustainable Development Goals, offers fresh hope, also for Europe. The overarching principle of this comprehensive and universal agenda is "to leave no one behind". Composed of 17 goals and 167 targets, the agenda sets out an ambitious roadmap that does not replace the legally binding international human rights treaties, but that can provide renewed impetus and momentum to the human rights agenda in Europe. Goal 10 calls for the empowerment and the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.

The stars are aligned: between the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU Social Pillar, and the Open-ended Working Group, we believe there is a momentum now to push for a better protection of the human rights of older persons here in Europe. At the level of the EU, we are therefore calling for the adoption of a comprehensive Anti-discrimination Directive that would outlaw discrimination on all grounds, including age, and that would go beyond the current ban, which only covers the area of employment.



In conclusion, people are getting older. It is an undeniable, unstoppable and, in my view, a beautiful truth. It is only beautiful though, if we can ensure dignity and respect for older persons in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This requires that we realize four big things. The first is to get rid of discrimination against older persons. Ageist attitudes lead to discriminatory practices, abuse and violence towards older persons, including in care settings. Age-based discrimination generates a lack of self-esteem and a sense of disempowerment. It undermines the older person's perception of autonomy. Secondly, sufficient social protection for older persons should be guaranteed. The objective of social protection is to allow everyone, regardless of disability, age, gender or race to live with dignity and independence. Thirdly, we should work towards a support-based, human rights-based approach. Lastly, we should strive to really make older persons a full-fledged part of society by seeking the greatest possible autonomy for older persons. There is a need to foster age-sensitive communities and age-friendly environments to help older persons retain their autonomy, be active, and integrated effectively in all aspects of life.  Inclusion, autonomy and independent living are therefore an important part of this seminar. It is essential to move towards an all-encompassing human rights-based approach in which the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons becomes an integral part of all policies and programmes affecting them. This paradigm shift may not happen overnight, but it surely deserves our very best effort. Thank you.