Working paper

The rights of older persons: protection and gaps under human rights law

Law Human rights Ageing Older people Australia
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Throughout the world, large numbers of older persons face challenges such as discrimination, poverty and abuse that severely restrict their human rights and their contribution to society.

The world has not been quick to respond: a lack of political will and the prioritisation of the special rights of other disadvantaged groups have often been at the expense of the case for older people. Although concerns involving the ageing population are not new, they have traditionally been seen as problems requiring solutions that are functional, piecemeal and reactive.

In a climate where the human rights field has become increasingly specialised, disadvantaged groups such as children, migrant workers, persons with disabilities and women have had their particular needs recognised by the United Nations. More and more people argue it is time that older persons were also identified as a distinct category, deserving special care and attention under human rights law.

While older persons historically have been neglected by human rights law, their rights are becoming a part of the public agenda. International and domestic non-government organisations (NGOs) as well as some nation-states have been pushing for a stronger human rights instrument to protect the rights of older persons. The topic has also been given increasing attention in academic and professional media.

Demographic change is a key factor in explaining the renewed interest in older persons’ human rights. Declining fertility rates and longer life expectancy are causing unprecedented proportional growth in the world’s older adult population. This will transform many aspects of society and pose new economic and social challenges. Greater numbers of older people are likely to make their rights as a group more prominent and make the abuse of those rights more common.

This paper is part of a series examining debates around the rights, responsibilities and contributions of older people. It explores the extent to which existing international human rights instruments of varying forms offer protection for older persons. It then identifies the key arguments in the debate for and against the drafting of a new Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. In a second paper, the protection and gaps that exists in Australia at the federal level and in one state (Victoria) will be evaluated. In order to contextualise the discussion, an introductory note is first made on contemporary attitudes to later life and how old age has been constructed as a category with social meaning.

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