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2018 Update on the UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons

December 10, 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was a milestone in 1948 for protecting human rights. Surprisingly, older persons are not yet expressly identified as a protected group under international human rights laws. In acknowledgment of the Declaration, the UN International Day for Older Persons has coined the theme for 2018 to be “Celebrating Older Human Rights Champions”. With the 70th anniversary on the horizon for the Declaration, it feels important to reflect on older person’s rights and the long standing discussion around the proposed United Nations Convention on the Rights of Older Persons (the “Convention”). 

The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner reports that older persons are the fastest-growing segment of the population and in 2050, there will be approximately two billion older persons, an over one billion increase from the current population. The purpose of the Convention is to address these concerns and protect the rights and welfare of the growing population of older persons in society, specifically addressing ageism and age discrimination across the globe.The Convention has inspired dialogue around the world on various platforms, whether by NGOs advocating for its ratification, or impassioned speeches by member states at the UN, as well as right here at home in Canada.

Canada has legislated to prohibit discrimination based on age under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as under the Canadian Human Rights Act. In Ontario, the Ontario Human Rights Commission defines ageism as “a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons” [1] and can occur when the needs of all members of a population fail to be contemplated. Age discrimination can be defined as when an individual is treated differently based on their age.

So, what does ageism and age discrimination look like in day-to-day life? Examples include negative attitudes and stereotypes towards older persons, discrimination in the health care system, lack of employment opportunities, receiving an unfair wage, preconceived negative notions about older persons, and imposing standards based on the statistics of a younger population while failing to consider the needs of older persons, such as the timing of traffic lights or the impact of digitally-based services. The consequences know no bounds, and have significant social and economic impacts on our society.

Several provinces have taken steps to combat ageism. One specific example is elder abuse, which has received a significant amount of attention in Canada. Several provinces have created awareness campaigns and hotlines to assist in making the reporting process easier. The Canadian Bar Association, as well as the Ontario Bar Association, has created an Elder Law section for lawyers to properly advocate and educate on elder client issues.

If Canada is attempting to combat and campaign against ageism nationally, why do we need the Convention? An international convention or declaration would hold our country accountable on the global stage, and assist in fighting the age stigma in other UN member states. However, it is unclear when the Convention will be ratified by member states and progress is moving slowly, but at the same time there is a groundswell and a global consensus is emerging.

Action to support the rights of older persons has been discussed by the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing, which was established by the UN General Assembly in 2010 to address these concerns. This month, the group’s ninth session will be held in New York City. It will be interesting to see what progress will be made, as the impetus for the Convention grows stronger and more urgent every day.

Ontario Human Rights Commission, Ageism and Age Discrimination (link: http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/ageism-and-age-discrimination-fact-sheet).