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Human Rights and Older People


Older people as with every other section of the population have human rights as they are inherent to all human beings. To date there has been a lack of discussion and articulation of the human rights of older people in Ireland and internationally.

But as Ireland and the world ages it takes on an added importance to start this discussion. We need to improve the protection of older person’s rights so that older people can fully enjoy their human rights and so we all can continue to participate in and contribute to society as we grow old.

Please browse this section for more information about human rights, the potential for a new international Convention on the Rights of Older People and Age Action’s work on this.

What are human rights?

Human Rights are rights which belong to every individual simply because we are human beings. It does not matter what our nationality, place of residence, sex, age, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status is.

Human rights are about human dignity as opposed to simply human needs or charity and embody the basic standards without which people cannot realise their inherent human dignity.

We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination.

What is international human rights law?

International Human Rights Law refers to both European and UN international human rights instruments. It lays down obligations of governments to act in certain ways or to refrain from certain acts, in order to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals or groups.

Respect means that States must refrain from interfering with or curtailing the enjoyment of human rights.

Protect requires States to protect individuals and groups against human rights abuses.

Fulfil means that States must take positive action to facilitate the enjoyment of basic human rights.

International human rights law is primarily made up of International Human Rights Treaties and once ratified; each State must ensure that the Treaty is compatible with its domestic law. Where a mechanism has failed under domestic law in relation to a human rights abuse, an individual may rely on international law mechanisms to seek redress. Please find more information on international human rights law and mechanisms here (PDF, size 69.3 KB).

A new Convention on the Rights of Older People?

The UN has been discussing, at the Open Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA), the rights of older people and whether a new International Convention on the Rights of Older People should be drafted. The General Assembly at the UN established the OEWGA in 2010 and it has met once a year since then at the UN in New York. There is a current lack of consensus on whether a new Convention should be drafted. The negotiation and drafting process for human rights Conventions at the UN is very lengthy and it is not uncommon to take a decade or longer.

The Irish government’s current position is against a new Convention but they do support and participate in the OEWGA process. We in Age Action are urging them to support a new Convention. We are also calling for the participation of older people themselves in the OEWGA in order to ensure the lived experience of older people is heard and informs what is ultimately included in a Convention.

Click here for more information on the OEWGA.

Why is a Convention required?

There are nine International Human Rights Conventions or treaties. Some are universal, e.g. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights and some have been developed to address groups of people who experience particular discrimination or need particular protection, e.g. the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

However there is no Convention on the rights of older people. In addition older people are not specifically mentioned in the universal treaties and are rarely mentioned in commentary or recommendations made by the Committees established to monitor compliance with the treaties.We in Age Action think this is a clear gap in the current international human rights infrastructure that a new Convention would remedy.

A new Convention would also articulate how human rights specifically apply to older people and what measures Governments must take to comply with it. This is currently absent from the international human rights infrastructure. Articles in a new Convention could deal with, e.g.

  • Protection from elder abuse
  • Support in care settings (in nursing homes, in palliative care settings and in the community)
  • Access to social security or pensions
  • Access to age appropriate healthcare
  • Protection from age discrimination

Age Action’s work on human rights

Our policy team makes submissions under the human rights treaties that Ireland has signed up to. Ireland is reviewed, usually every 4-5 years; by a body of international experts that monitor implementation of each treaty e.g. the human rights committee is the body that monitors implementation of the ICCPR. We sometimes make submissions directly to the UN body that is reviewing Ireland and sometimes to civil society collaborations. See the submissions below.

We think it is important in engage with theses international human rights mechanisms to highlight the gaps in protection for the rights of older people in Ireland under the relevant treaties, and to hold the government to account.

We also do advocacy work in order to build support for a new Convention on the Rights of Older People with politicians and decision makers.  To that end we take part in HelpAge International’s Age Demands Action campaign which is calling for a Convention in the Rights of Older People and are members of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People. We are also an accredited NGO with the OEWGA and make submissions under this process.

Finally we also raise awareness of human rights and older people by giving talks to older people’s groups.

To sign the Age Demands Action petition for a UN convention on the rights of older people please click here.

Human rights and older persons working group

Age Action is members of the Human Rights and Older Persons Working Group which was set up in 2013. Other members of the working group include Active Retirement Ireland, Active Ageing in Partnership, Age and Opportunity, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the Public Interest Law Alliance (PILA), and Third Age.

The group share a common focus on human rights and older people and focuses both on human rights law and using a human rights based approach. In December 2013, the working group launched a policy paper on Human Rights and Older People. For more information on using a human rights based approach click here

Our submissions on human rights and older people:

Note: Links to external websites are included on this page. Age Action is not responsible for the contents of external websites.

Age Based Analysis of Mortgage Arrears Released for First Time

We welcome the publication, by the Irish Times, of data released for the first time by the Central Bank of Ireland that shows the number of people approaching, or already at retirement age, who are dealing wtih significant mortgage debt. The information gives a clearer picture of the worrying situation for Ireland’s ageing population. Simply, a lack of evidence exists on the cost of ageing with less complete data collected about us the older we become. As a result, crucial policy decisions are made without the availability of disaggregated and representative data which can result in discriminatory outcomes. We need an urgent rethinking of how we gather evidence and inform policy that meets the needs of a changing Ireland.

While there has been an assumption that older people close to, and in receipt of, the State pension are generally mortgage-free home owners, it is clear that this is no longer true with many still carrying large mortgages, in mortgage arrears or living in precarious private rentals with no security of tenure in older age. We should all have a choice to age in place which means the creation of age friendly environments, including the provision of support services locally, which enable people to remain in their own homes and in communities for longer; but the changing nature of homeownership, rising cost of living, and the lack of a coordinated policy response to the housing crisis means many people will be facing a very difficult situation in later life. 

Many older people live in the most vulnerable situations in our society. An increasing number are struggling to meet the rising cost of living – in particular costs around rent and mortgages - in the context of a State pension that sees many surviving on incomes only just above the poverty line. Latest CSO EU SILC figures show 1 in 10 older people at risk of poverty. New taxes, and rising prices in recent years have a greater impact on older people generally living on a fixed income with limited opportunities to improve their situation. Budget 2020 saw the income of older person headed households increase by €1.08 per week for those living with another person, and by €6.08 per week for those living alone in older age. It did not offer the majority of older people the support needed to meet the increasing costs of living and it did not offer a concrete plan to support us to age in place.

Ageist attitudes towards working later in life still exist, for example many older people have reported high levels of discrimination during recruitment. Discriminatory mandatory retirement clauses are still in place forcing people out of the workforce earlier than they may wish. These two things undermine people’s ability to continue working in later life whether by choice or necessity. In the context of a buoyant labour market, we urgently need a fundamental shift in how we view and support older workers.

An increasing number of older people are experiencing fear about retirement due to worries about income adequacy. Less than half of those working have a private or occupational pension to support them in later life. While Age Action welcomes the publication of the recent autoenrolment scheme by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection which will see increased pension coverage for more than an estimated half a million workers, the current design will further drive existing pension inequalities unless there is a targeted intervention to include people in low paid jobs, particularly women and long term unemployed.

Our economy has been built on the backs of those already in, and approaching, older age: these are the same women and men who lived through the Marriage Bar, shouldered several recessions and are now dealing with the accumulated disadvantages. Successive government policies have failed to adequately plan and provide for an ageing population which will ultimately impact on all of us throughout our lives.