Friday, April 29, 2011

Observations from the First Session of the Open-ended Working Group

On April 18, I attended the meeting of the first working session of the Open-Ended Working Group at the United Nations Headquarters. Speakers and UN Delegations focused their attention on the current status of human rights of older persons around the world.

If you’ve not heard about the Open-ended Working Group, the General Assembly created this forum on December 21, 2010, with Resolution 65/1862 on December 21, 2010. UN delegations addressed elder rights in their countries and regions but also learned from each other and experts about the effectiveness of such protections. Later on, they will vote to decide whether a human rights instrument that is binding on countries is required to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons.

After the session opened, national delegations that wanted to make a statement did so. As I listened, I began to understand where they currently stand on a convention to protect older persons’ rights. I recognized some trends from different regions. The European Union had negotiated its position earlier; it was presented by Hungary on behalf of the EU. Hungary, France, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark all pointed out their already existing protections that they claimed were already protecting the human rights for older persons. Denmark focussed on healthcare, saying that universal social protection – both in terms of cash transfers and social services – is a key component of the Danish welfare model. And the Danes said that their social service meets individual needs. I noticed that they failed to note the older people in our societies that are not in need of healthcare but do suffer from economic exclusion, isolation and discrimination. These individuals are more invisible than the ones who need direct medical help. I am not surprised by this, coming from a Scandinavian country myself. I know most responses are based on the individual. While this is often a positive approach, the downside is clear. If older person are not in direct need of help, they are easily forgotten.

The United Kingdom did not make a very long statement. The UK promotes active aging, with most of the responsibilities on the individual. Switzerland pointed out that they have had a long history of social services and protection for their older citizens. Poverty is not a problem in Switzerland. France was the first and only country that specifically addressed older women.

The only two nations that made it clear they wanted a convention were Argentina and Chile. Argentina emphasized that there is (1) no legal binding international protection for older persons, and that (2) the only other convention that directly refers to elder rights is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Argentina also pointed out that the majority of older people do not have disabilities so the rights in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities cannot be applied to them.

The United States’ spokesperson shared a lot of its ongoing programs and protections for the older people. It appeared that the US does not see any major ongoing problems in the country. But, it recognized that older people around the world continue to experience discrimination and violations. The US recommended continuing discussion on aging rights.

From a less individual perspective, Syria, Qatar and Pakistan spoke. They cited the importance of the family as the foundation in society, instead of the individual, with a critical position toward the idea of universal human rights. This is when China’s approach became interesting. China put a lot of emphasis on the importance of the fact that countries are diverse in terms of economical and social conditions, as well as historical and cultural traditions.

China argued that Member states should address the aging issue on the basis of their national conditions and different development levels. I was not surprised by China’s statement. It seemed that China favored a regional solution. It is also important to keep in mind that China values its sovereignty. I believe that China will play a huge role in the outcome of this proposed convention.

On the whole, all countries claimed they were interested in participating in the upcoming debate regarding human rights for older persons. They all agreed that world citizens now face the fact that humans live longer and that pressure to meet the challenges of aging will become greater. The regional trends are visible, and as we can see, the world is divided at present about approaches to this new challenge. The Open-ended Working Group’s Chairman, H.E. Mr. Jorge Martin Aguello, (Ambassador of Argentina), was indeed correct when he said that this mission is ambitious. Meanwhile, as we wait for the second OEWG session that is coming up in August, NGOs must target those nations that seemed the least open to the idea of a convention and persuade them to find useful ways to protect the human rights for older persons.

Sanna Klemetti

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