The new Independent Expert: Putting the human rights of older persons in the frame
The United Nations Human Rights Council in their 24th session held in October 2013 voted to establish a mandate for an ‘Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons’. A recent announcement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay indicated that plans have been progressing and that the mandate holder will soon be appointed.
The expert will join the other 37 Independent Experts and Special Rapporteurs who work on thematic issues to advise the UN human rights machinery. Crucially, these experts work in their private capacity and are not representatives of States or organisations. Independent experts give reports to the UN Human Rights Council and, sometimes, to the UN General Assembly and can visit States to investigate a national human rights situation.
Each mandate holder brings their own concerns and expertise to the role, but broadly speaking the first Independent Expert on older persons will have the task of clarifying and to bringing attention to the human rights of older persons.
The expert, with a specific focus on the human rights of older persons, will be able to explore in much more depth how human rights treaties (such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) apply to older persons. Put differently; the expert will explain how States should advance the human rights of older persons.
A second major role of the mandate holder will be to bring an increased attention to the issues of older persons. By speaking regularly about the issues in UN bodies and by investigating country situations, a new spotlight will be shone on the human rights issues of older persons. It is hoped that through this increased consideration States will be more responsive to older persons’ issues.
The creation of the position follows a sustained period of attention on these issues. This attention at the UN arguably began with a comment in 1995 by the UN human rights body responsible for supervising the Economic and Social rights treaty which expanded older persons’ rights to non-discrimination, work, social security and an adequate standard of living. There followed a section dedicated to older persons in a unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(symbol/E.C.12.2000.4.En text: report) on health in 2000, and a detailed consideration from the women’s committee in 2010.
In September 2011 the UN Human Rights Council asked the Special Rapporteur on Health to prepare a report on the ‘challenges and best practices’ in securing older persons’ right to health. Finally and significantly, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights - the head of the UN human rights structure - took 2012 to focus on these human rights issues. In her report, the High Commissioner adopted a highly practical approach to the global ageing population and highlighted the artificiality of many age-based discriminations. She wrote:
"Age is not a merely a numerical designation, but rather, age is a social construct based on custom, practice and the perception of the role a person plays in his or her community."
The success of securing a dedicated expert on these issues is already being followed by calls for a Convention for Older Persons. In some ways a natural partner for the Convention on the Rights of the Child, such a treaty would complement the work of the Independent Expert in bringing attention and clarity to the human rights of the older population. However, such a treaty requires States to agree upon a text, and as such may be some time off. In the meantime, older persons and those who advocate for their human rights can take solace in the new focal point that the Independent Expert provides, and can begin centring their campaigns and goals on this new resource.