Older Women’s Network Event
Welcome and Acknowledgements
Acknowledge traditional owners – The Gadigal People.
It is an astounding reality that by 2050, for the first time in the history of humanity, there will be more people over 60 years of age globally than there are children.i
All over the world, older populations are increasing dramatically and rapidly. The fastest increase will take place in Africa, where the number of people over 60 is projected to almost quadruple and reach 215 million by 2050. Our own Asia Pacific region, home to over 50 per cent of the world’s elderly population, will triple these figures in the next 40 years from 414 million in 2010 to 1.25 billion.ii
In Australia, the average life expectancy is now over 80 for both men and women and rising. The fastest growing demographic cohort in Australia is now people over 65.iii
We welcome these statistics, representing as they do a victory for human kind. The World Health Organization rightly observes, “population ageing is one of humanity’s greatest triumphs”.iv
Background to a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons
It is in this context of rapid population ageing and shifting social, economic and political landscapes that an international Convention on the Rights of Older Persons comes into focus as a timely and vital instrument for protecting the human rights of older people.
There is, at present, no binding international instrument dedicated to the human rights of older persons. Explicit references to older people in other international human rights instruments are rare and fragmentary. As the Human Rights Council found in its 2013 consultation, a number of human rights issues relevant to older persons “have not been given sufficient attention either in the wording of existing human rights instruments or in the practice of human rights bodies and mechanisms”.v
Various international forums and discussions have taken place over the years including world assemblies on ageing held in Vienna (1982) and in Madrid (2002). These discussions have confirmed the existence of population ageing as a global phenomenon providing huge and urgent challenges.
In 2010 the UN General Assembly resolved to establish an Open-Ended Working Group on strengthening the protection of the human rights of older persons. The OEWG, comprising all member states of the UN has now met 4 times. And each meeting has affirmed and identified the existence of significant gaps in protections for older persons.
On 20 December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to consider proposals for an international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older people. This is the starting point for our current discussion on the development of a convention.
Why we need a convention
I turn now to the merits of an international convention. I can list many.
First, an international convention would provide an explicit universal statement that reaffirms the essential truth that older persons are entitled to human rights and fundamental freedoms on the same basis as everyone else.
A convention would raise more general awareness of the rights of older people and reduce the neglect of older persons so widespread in all societies throughout the world.
It would provide a stimulus to domestic laws and policies aimed at the comprehensive protection of rights for older persons.
While Australia with its strong welfare safety net traditions has many important protections in place, such as the Age Pension, Medicare, and commonwealth funded aged care, there still remain areas even here where older people are vulnerable, particularly housing.
Despite our shortcomings however, Australia is relatively advanced in the protections it is able to offer.
In many places in our region and throughout the rest of the world, rights have little or no protection, and safety nets do not exist. These areas of significant gaps provide a starting point for proposals to include in a new convention.
A convention could also contribute to creating a paradigm shift from perceptions of older persons as welfare recipients and a burden to society, to older people as rights holders and active contributors to society.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a binding international convention would place an obligation on signatory states to protect, respect, promote and fulfil the human rights of older people. The state would be subject to international monitoring and review processes including the Universal Periodic Review where the UN would assess the state’s progress in advancing the rights of older people and make recommendations on areas for improvement.
Progress to date
At the UN level, the OEWG is still far from reaching consensus to go ahead with the development of a convention.
Some states have expressed a preference for implementing existing non-binding international instruments like the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing 2002 or individual regional declarations.
While the number of member states formally supporting the preparation of a convention continues to grow, we are still quite a way from a majority. Australia has not yet declared a position.
More progress has been made among international civil society groups, some of which have started to write up their own draft conventions! The international NGO community has a formed an alliance called the Global Alliance for the Rights for Older People. This consists of a network of international age-related NGOs who are in support of a new convention. An Australian branch of GAROP, led by COTA has been formed and is active.
The Human Rights Council has appointed Ms. Rosa Kornfeld-Matte as the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons. We hope that this initiative will advance the process.
At the Australian human Rights Commission, we are active.
Since attending the third substantive session of the OEWG in New York in August 2012, I have made several representations to government about the benefits of a new convention. More are planned. I also raise the issue where I can with civil society and the local community and in the media. I made a submission to the 2013 OHCHR public consultation on the rights of older persons and presented at the consultation in Geneva that year.
From 13-15 May 2014 at my initiative the Commission and Asia Pacific Forum co-hosted an Asia Pacific Workshop on the Rights of Older Persons which I chaired. This Workshop brought together 16 National Human Rights Institute delegates from the region. We agreed to form a regional working group on the issue and I was elected as spokesperson for that group.
From 30 July – 1 August 2014 in New York OEWG – Professor Andrew Byrnes and the delegate from the Bangladesh Commission attended as independent experts, sponsored by the Asia Pacific Forum. Professor Byrne will act as advisor to our regional group.
The next step for the Commission internationally is for me to attend a workshop for the regional group. It will be organised by UN ESCAP and UN DESA and held in Bangkok, Thailand late September.
What more needs to be done?
Strong support for a convention in Australia depends on many people understanding what it is about and how a convention could, in practical terms, improve the lives of older Australians. At this stage we are a very long way from enjoying that broad understanding and support.
In Australia a crucial step is to secure commitment and official support from the Federal Government.
I urge those of you who agree that we need this convention to write to MP’s and senators and seek meetings with your local members to put the case.
We also need the issue to become known more widely in the community and in the media.
You can talk to your friends, family and neighbours about the convention. You can initiate local discussions in community groups and communicate the results to NGOs like OWN and COTA, which is part of the global alliance. You can comment to talk back radio and make the points on the many blogs that might be relevant.
Ultimately of course this is a global as well a local initiative. We are committed to protecting the rights of all older people wherever they live.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said “Let us redouble our efforts to realise the rights of older persons, and make the dream of a society for all ages a reality”.vi
I hope you share his objective and will act to achieve it.
i Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Human Rights Chief offers her support for a new Convention on the rights of older persons (8 April 2014). At http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/RightsOfOlderPersons.aspx (viewed 5 May 2014).
ii United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, E/2012/51 (2012), p 7.
iii Australian Bureau of Statistics, Life Expectancy Trends, 4102.0 Australian Social Trends, (March 2011). At: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4102.0Main+Features10Mar… (viewed 24 January 2012).
iv World Health Organization, Active Ageing: A Policy Framework, WHO/NMH/NPH/02.8 (2002), p 6. At http://www.who.int/ageing/publications/active/en/ (viewed 21 June 2012).
v Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Human Rights Chief offers her support for a new Convention on the rights of older persons (8 April 2014). At http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/RightsOfOlderPersons.aspx (viewed 5 May 2014).
vi NGO Committee on Ageing, Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Celebration of the International Day of Older Persons: A Call for a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons (2 October 2008). Quoted at www.ngocoa-ny.org/download_pdfs/idop_2008_proceedings.pdf (viewed 18 August 2014).