Overcoming Ageism and Supporting the Human Rights of Seniors

When the UN Chronicle asked the Association of Former International Civil Servants (AFICS/NY) on the eve of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's second term in office to contribute to an issue devoted to looking at what the United Nations can do in the next five years, reflecting on achievements and lessons learned from the past, there was no hesitation on our part. Even if at first blush retirees might not seem to be the most obvious interlocutors to call on for ideas on strengthening the United Nations, the very raison d'être of AFICS/NY contradicts this notion.

The Association was established in 1970 by a pioneering group of serving staff and retirees, with the strong support of then United Nations Secretary-General U Thant. AFICS/NY had several goals at the time of its founding, but chief among them was to support and promote the purposes, principles, and programmes of the United Nations system. Every subsequent Secretary-General, together with the Presidents of the General Assembly, has continued to strongly support AFICS/ NY and has personally addressed or sent his representative to speak at its meetings. In a message to the 2008 AFICS Annual Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told retirees: "To us, you are former international civil servants on paper only; in practice you remain valued members of the United Nations family." The following year, General Assembly President Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann said to the AFICS/NY Annual Assembly: "I believe that the staff members who have retired from the United Nations must continue to be valuable resources and advocates for its ongoing work. AFICS is key to ensuring their continuing involvement."

For the most part, AFICS/NY is composed of retirees who have completed their work for the United Nations and would seem to have little or no possibility of influencing or affecting the Organization's future; however, its members were once international civil servants involved in implementing legislative mandates, proposing policy options, conducting research, participating in negotiations, and providing direction for countless programmes and projects. Many served at the highest levels and remain a vital part of the international community, continuing to serve as consultants, advisers, and advocates. Of course AFICS/NY also engages in other activities, such as advising and assisting its members on a range of issues, with pensions and health insurance as the top priorities. AFICS/NY also tries to foster social and personal relationships and, by simply being there, to facilitate continuation of the linkage with the work of an Organization that had such a profound impact on its members' lives.

Today, what does all this have to do with ways that the Secretary-General can strengthen the United Nations, and how can the collective experience of a small association such as AFICS/NY help him to identify and achieve future goals?

United Nations retirees, with their pensions and after-service health insurance, realize that they constitute a privileged minority among the world's ageing population. Their experience as citizens of the world, however, also makes them aware that they have a duty to champion the rights of seniors the world over, the majority of whom are far less advantaged. If AFICS/NY has a role to play in determining the future agenda of the United Nations, it is not in the political arena, but rather in an area closer to home and related to its core competency -- supporting the needs and rights of seniors.

According to recent UN reports, 1 out of 10 persons is now aged 60 or over; by 2050, that ratio will be 1 out of 5, with older persons outnumbering children under the age of 14. As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, the number of persons aged 60 and over is growing so rapidly that a 30 per cent increase is expected, reaching one billion by the end of this decade, and perhaps another billion by the middle of the century. Although most of the increase will occur in developing countries, we are presently witnessing a rapid acceleration in the growth of the older population throughout the world that is unprecedented. However, despite these striking demographic changes, persons over 60 years of age remain largely invisible around the world; their particular problems are not being addressed specifically enough, and existing instruments on human rights, discrimination, and violence make no reference to older persons per se. It can be said that, for the most part, seniors suffer from social exclusion in all its forms. Modalities to assist them fall between the cracks, often giving way to programmes aimed at other demographic groups, such as youth. And while it is normal for societies to invest in young people who traditionally are seen as the future, by living longer and growing in numbers, seniors too become part of that same future -- a future that must respect and provide for them.

Ageing has long been on the agenda of the United Nations. The first World Assembly on Ageing was held in Vienna in 1982, but it took another two decades before the second World Assembly was held in Madrid in 2002. In the grand scheme of things, a 20-year interval for a topic such as ageing may not appear unreasonable. However, another decade has passed since Madrid, and the implementation of the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing that was adopted in 2002 is still a work in progress with much unfinished business on its agenda. The three priority areas set out in the Plan of Action were: older persons and development; advancing health and well-being into old age; and ensuring enabling and supportive environments.

AFICS/NY believes that a higher priority should be placed on the human rights of older persons and on actions to ensure that they can both contribute to and benefit from their country's development process to the fullest extent possible. We see the recent establishment by the General Assembly of an Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on Ageing for the purpose of strengthening the protection of the human rights of older persons as a positive new step. Outcomes that emerge from that forum have the potential to reinforce and extend the actions being taken by Governments, civil society, and the United Nations system to implement the Madrid International Plan of Action.

On 1 October 2011 AFICS/NY was encouraged by the remarks of the Secretary-General on the occasion of the International Day of Older Persons, in which he emphasized that older persons were still largely excluded from the wider global, regional, and national development agendas, and that the needs and contributions of older persons should become a bigger part of the dialogue on development. He further noted the need for vigilance in the current fiscal environment, so that the provision of social protection, long-term care, and access to public health for older people is not undermined. While we understand that there are competing and widely divergent interests, as well as perhaps more alluring topics on the agenda of the United Nations which makes it difficult for an issue like ageing to gain real traction, we hope that these themes will become a higher priority for the Secretary-General and the Organization during his second term.

The recent discussions under the auspices of the OEWG on Ageing clearly showed that age-related discrimination -- ageism -- remains a serious problem in many countries with regard to employment, access to health care, legal and social protection and social security, among others. Older women are especially at high risk of suffering violence, neglect, and poverty. AFICS/NY supports the views expressed at the OEWG by some delegations and representatives of non- governmental organizations to the effect that existing international instruments, while applicable to older persons, have not offered adequate protection, visibility, and specificity, and that the unique barriers and specific challenges faced by older persons deserve dedicated attention. The existing system has led to fragmentation and has not provided a systematic approach and a clear channel for monitoring. AFICS/NY welcomes continuing dialogue within the OEWG on Ageing, which is aimed at devising effective approaches to overcoming these gaps in protection and monitoring progress in this regard.

One way to overcome ageism is through a binding human rights convention. At the international level, there is no dedicated protection regime for the human rights of older persons. And, as already noted, existing modalities, which have resulted from a piecemeal approach, do not adequately address the specific needs of seniors. Non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders believe that the time has come to set out a new international convention which protects the human rights of older persons. The Secretary-General could be instrumental in the establishment of such a convention.

AFICS/NY would like to see a growing population of seniors engaged in productive ageing, with access to an age-appropriate health care system that includes more doctors who have had training in geriatrics. Mindsets need to turn away from a welfare approach -- ageing tends to be seen as an economic or welfare problem -- to one that is brought into development agendas. The United Nations will soon be facing the Millennium Development Goal challenges that may remain post-2015. We call on the Secretary-General to articulate a post-2015 agenda that takes a harder look at the problems of the ageing population, and to exercise his influence in ensuring that ageing issues are mainstreamed, particularly in developing countries. At present too little, if any, attention is paid to projects for seniors on the ground. The Secretary-General could bring the authority of his office to bear in ensuring that the United Nations becomes a catalyst for establishing programmes in the field for seniors.

Success in the achievement of almost any goal comes when there is support from the very top. AFICS/NY would like to see the Secretary-General make every effort to push the ageing agenda to ensure that in 2012 -- ten years after Madrid -- tangible results are visible, or in the process of being effected. We call on the Secretary-General to lend his voice and moral authority to the issue of the human rights dimension of seniors, and make it a top priority for his second term. AFICS/NY stands ready to assist the Secretary-General in this endeavour.