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Age Demands Action: The Imperative Need of an International Convention on the Rights of Old People

The Open Ended Working Group on Ageing, established by the General Secretariat of the United Nations in 2010 via resolution 65/182 [1], has the purpose of enabling the effective exercise of basic human rights of older people. Ever since its establishment, the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing gathers once a year to discuss topics related to the violation of rights and freedom of older people, and in order to do so, they rely on the active participation of civil society and the delegations of the state-members.

During the Ninth Working Session, which took place in July of 2018, the Open Ended Group focused on the discussion of autonomy, independence, as well as long term and palliative care for older citizens. However, the highlight of the session was the urgency of the implementation of a multilateral legal document, a document which will effectively guarantee human rights and freedoms of elders, via international coercion.

Yet, what is the actual benefit of elaborating a Human Rights Treaty on the matter? Especially if we consider that, in 2002, states-members reunited in Madrid, Spain, to develop a document that established the general guideline to the rights and freedoms of older people, designing articles that indicated what were considered violations of human rights of elders [2].

Nevertheless, although it was well-written and covered the main points surrounding ageing, the Madrid Plan of Action was not effective. It was not able to properly enforce at a global level the necessary action to adequately prevent violation of rights and protect older people, and the reason why is quite simple. Over centuries, countries have pride themselves in their sovereignty, self-governance and self-legislation, so much that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is considered an historical act, for it shifted the international legal scenario.

Eleanor Roosevelt holding the UDHR. Link:

In that matter, by adopting the UDHR in 1948, States gave up on part of their sovereignty in order to achieve the common goal, to prevent the atrocities that occurred during the Second World War from ever happening again. Thus, the implementation of an international legal document grants the possibility of intervention on a domestic level to the signatarian states.

In other words, there are two parameters that derive from international human rights legislation: one that is addressed to the states, and the other is addressed to the individuals who are part of such states. Consequently, by the imposition of behavioral norms that are internationally applicable, treaties are a way to make States formally commit via the non violation of the rights present in the treaty, and at the time it legitimizes the complaints of citizens when such rights and freedoms are disregarded [3]. Therefore, the mere recognition that citizens are subjects to rights and freedoms by a treaty enforces an implied responsibility from the signatory States.

This responsibility has been legitimized throughout the years with the advance of Human Rights Treaties, especially those centered on the rights and freedoms of minorities. Human Rights Treaties elaborated in the last 30 years have, as their main goal, the viabilility of the defense of human rights in the global and local levels, by juridically ensuring the construction of objective and practical terms that are applicable in the daily lives of all people [4].

Moreover, Treaties, or Conventions, which are legally the same, are autonomous to implement in their own legal body, by which they will fiscalize, and ensure that the practices which were thereupon agreed by signatory states, are fully implemented. A particularly efficient method is the legal adjacent document known as an Optional Protocol.

As defined by the United Nations High Commissioner Office for Human Rights (OHCHR) the Optional Protocol is a legal document “on any relevant topic to the original treaty” and usually it serves to address new emerging concerns, implement additional topics to the original document, or “add a procedure for the operation and enforcement of the treaty” [5]. Nonetheless, since it is optional and signatory countries of the original treaty are not obliged to ratify the Optional Protocol, but in fact most do.

For instance, the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women establishes the communication procedure, which enables civilians to submit complaints to the Committee, as well as an inquiry procedure that allows the Committee to investigate and address specific issues of the signatarian States.

A row of flags in the front of the UN Headquarters in NYC. Link:

An International Treaty alone is not capable to solve humanitarian issues, yet is very effective step towards the enforcement and protection of the rights and freedom of older people. To quote the American Bar Association at the Ninth Working Session on Ageing, “There is no excuse left to moving forward in an United Nations Declaration on the Rights of old people”.

You can access all previous treaties and conventions in the OHCHR website by clicking on the link below:


[1] “A/RES/65/182 — E.” S/RES/1888(2009) — E.

[2] “Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing For Ageing.” United Nations.

[3] Cassese, Antonio. “Human Rights in a Changing World” Temple Univ Pr: Cambridge, 1990

[4] Piovesan, Flávia. Direitos Humanos e o Direito Constitucional Internacional. Saraiva: São Paulo, 2015

[5] “OHCHR | Glossary of Technical Terms.” OHCHR | Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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