Do we need specific human rights for older people?

By: Baroness Sally Greengross

I have spent most of my working life championing the rights of older people in our society. I was for many years the Director General of Age Concern England, which at the time was England’s largest charity advocating for the rights of older people. I also have a broader interest in human rights, having served as a Commissioner on the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission for six years.

In recent years there have been calls for the creation of a United Nations Convention on the rights of Older Persons as a way to protect the rights of older people in international law. As a lifelong advocate for the rights of older people, I do not support this proposed UN Convention, and in June this year I recorded the following video on the subject:

The United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a significant milestone in international human rights. The Declaration consists of 30 articles detailing an individual’s “basic rights and fundamental freedoms” and affirming their universal character as inherent, inalienable, and applicable to all human beings. Universal rights are exactly that, universal, and one should not suddenly acquire different rights after a certain number of birthdays. Also, with the average life expectancy of people continually increasing, will this mean the age at which the Convention on the rights of Older Persons applies be periodically adjusted? At what will age will someone become an older person and no longer have the human rights of an adult?

The proposed convention would create separate human rights for older people. The justification for this is that it is similar to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in that it is a convention protecting the more vulnerable in our society. Older adults often are more vulnerable due to age related disabilities or health issues. This however does not mean they are no longer adults. The 2007 UN Convention on the Rights of Person’s with Disabilities protects the rights of all adults, including older adults, who have a disability. When we consider the rights of those with disabilities, we need to ensure that ‘disability’ includes both physical and mental disability. With the growing number of people being diagnosed with dementia increasing every year, it is important that the rights of those with mental and/or physical disabilities are protected.

The danger of passing a UN Convention on the rights of Older Persons is that there will be separate and potentially lesser human rights for people once they reach a certain age. As an 85-year-old, I do not want my human rights changed and potentially reduced due to my age. This is not what those who currently advocate for this Convention want, but this is the risk of moving away from a universal rights-based system.

Age discrimination remains a significant problem and must be challenged. In the United Kingdom, age discrimination is against the law under the 2010 Equality Act. This legislation makes it illegal to discriminate against someone due to their age, for example an employer not offering training to a worker of a certain age as they are deemed “too old”. To end age discrimination, we need to be ensuring that current human rights law and UN conventions are being upheld so that no adults of any age are being discriminated against.

Many civil society organisations advocating for the rights of older people are supporting this proposed UN convention. In most cases they do so with the very best of intentions, but they are, in my view, supporting something that could have very negative consequences. It would be a dangerous precedent to move away from universal rights, and could in fact result in more, not less discrimination against older people. I would urge those who currently advocate for this convention to think again, as we move away from universal adult human rights at our peril.

Baroness Sally Greengross

Chief Executive, ILC

Baroness Sally Greengross has been a crossbench (independent) member of the UK House of Lords since 2000 and Co-Chairs five All-Party Parliamentary Groups: Dementia, Corporate Social Responsibility, Bladder and Bowel Continence Care, Social Care and Ageing and Older People. She is the Vice Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on Choice at the End of Life and Longevity, and is Treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities. Sally is also Chair of the cross-party Intergenerational Fairness Forum.

Sally is Chief Executive of the International Longevity Centre – UK; was Co-President of the ILC Global Alliance from 2010-17 and is now their Special Ambassador, and was a Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2006-12. Baroness Greengross was Director-General of Age Concern England from 1987 until 2000. Until 2000, she was joint Chair of the Age Concern Institute of Gerontology at Kings College London, and Secretary-General of Eurolink Age. She is an Ambassador for Alzheimer’s Society, SilverLine and HelpAge International. Baroness Greengross is a Member of several advisory boards including Fujitsu’s Responsible Business Board. She is President of the Pensions Policy Institute and the Association of Retirement Housing Managers; a Vice President of the Local Government Association and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries.

Sally is Patron of several organisations including the Association of Retirement Community Operators; Care & Repair England; the Ransackers Association; and Age UK Westminster. Sally holds honorary doctorates from nine UK universities. Her work on ageing has been recognised by the UN Committee on Ageing and she received an outstanding achievement award from the British Society of Gerontology as well a British Geriatric Society Medal. Sally was UK Woman of Europe in 1990 and has been an Ambassador for the Prince of Wales supporting responsible business practice.