Strengthening Older People’s Rights: why we need a UN convention

Kelly Baker

At this year’s Conservative party conference, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the party’s manifesto will include a commitment to scrapping the Human Rights Act (HRA) after the next election, and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights.

The Home Secretary claimed the HRA in its current form gives terrorists and criminals too many rights, citing in particular the radical Muslim cleric, Abu Qatada, who was deported from Britain earlier this year following a 10-year legal battle. “It’s ridiculous that the British Government should have to go to such lengths to get rid of dangerous foreigners,” said Mrs May to rousing applause. “That’s why the next Conservative manifesto will promise to scrap the Human Rights Act”.

However, as the Home Secretary’s speech demonstrates, the debate about human rights has a tendency to focus on a very narrow range of issues, such as the “dangerous foreigners” who preach racial hatred on our streets, or the convicted criminals able to overturn deportation bids, citing their right to family life. These perceived loopholes in the HRA have historically stirred fervent debate, and are likely to continue to do so between now and the next general election. What garners less attention, however, is the notion that for one particular group of people, there are rights-based, international standards which are lacking from the HRA’s framework. As the case currently stands, there are UN conventions in place which protect the rights of women, children, people with disabilities, migrant workers and racial minorities. But, remarkably, there is still no dedicated protection regime or specific standards in place for the rights of older people.

The human race is undergoing a dramatic demographic change. There are currently 740 million people aged 60 years and over in the world; set to rise to 1 billion by 2020. These statistics are testament to the fact that it has never been a more pressing time to introduce calls for a UN convention specifically on the human rights of older people. So, where are we now? Last month, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which created a new position of an independent expert on the human rights of older people. It is a significant step forward, and acknowledges that older people’s rights within the existing human rights system need to be looked at again.

But more needs to be done. Older people continue to remain, in many ways, invisible, as policy-makers struggle to play catch-up with a transforming demographic landscape. For example, it is a fundamental human right for everyone to be able to live their lives free from violence and abuse. But the European Convention on Human Rights interprets this usually only in regards to women; limits it to physical and sexual abuse; and rarely collects data from anyone over the age of 49. It is a fundamental human right to be able to access the highest standard of healthcare, but recent research by the NGO, HelpAge International and the London School of Economics, found that in Peru, 77 per cent of older people were refused health insurance because of their age, and in Kyrgyzstan, older people who required an ambulance were often reluctant to reveal their age to operators, fearing that the ambulance might not be sent.

Cases of insufficient healthcare provision for older people can also be found in the UK. Macmillan’s ‘The Age Old Excuse’ campaign highlights how the UK has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe for older people, with around 14,000 avoidable cancer deaths in people over 75 every year. One suggestion for these high numbers has been that older people are not being offered the right cancer treatment and, indeed, studies show that breast cancer patients over the age of 70 are much less likely to receive surgery than people under 70.

No one disputes that older people are protected in a general sense by the human rights standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the lack of any explicit convention, such as those in place for women and children, means that age discrimination continues to go unchallenged. A new convention on the rights of older people would provide a solid framework for older people’s human rights; would prohibit discrimination in all aspects of life; and would provide an instrument for accountability.

An international convention on the human rights for older people could be the start of a global shift of ideas. From a UK perspective, if the Conservatives win the next election and subsequently begin the process of replacing the HRA, the question of where older people will sit within the British Bill of Rights is a discussion we must have.

At the heart of human rights is the concept that we are all born free and equal. We must now move to a place where we are all able to live our lives freely and as equals.

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