United Nations Principles for Older Persons

Review by: CSW63 Delegate Kathleen Montgomery, UN Observer Jill Follows, CSW63 Delegates Savanna Mapelli, Susan Sherer, ErinLeigh Darnley, Sheila Denn, Anu Sahai

Today’s review of the United Nations Principles FOR Older Persons is the next in a year-long series of monthly reviews of United Nations human rights conventions. All of the reviews are written by a team of League members from across the country who are inspired by the League’s history of human rights advocacy and motivated to start a fresh dialogue about the impact these historical UN conventions have today on the League’s principle of Empowering Voters – Defending Democracy. Democratic principles respecting human rights are enshrined in United Nations conventions.

Background: Our previous reviews considered formal United Nations treaties and conventions. Although there is no formal treaty or convention explicitly addressing the concerns of older persons, the United Nations has been far from silent on the issue. In 1991, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 46/91, PRINCIPLES FOR OLDER PERSONS. This declaration followed the earlier Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing, an outcome of the First World Assembly on Ageing in 1982. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/OlderPersons.aspx

The UN PRINCIPLES FOR OLDER PERSONS encourage governments “whenever possible” to incorporate into their national programs principles that foster independence, care, self-fulfillment, dignity, and participation. Of particular relevance to League of Women Voters’ priorities and activities are the two Principles pertaining to participation of older persons:

7. Older persons should remain integrated in society, participate actively in the formulation and implementation of policies that directly affect their well-being and share their knowledge and skills with younger generations.

8. Older persons should be able to seek and develop opportunities for service to their community and to serve as volunteers in positions appropriate to their interests and capabilities.

Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG): Following the adoption of the Principles for Older Persons, the UN convened the Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid in 2002, which resulted in the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. https://www.un.org/development/desa/ageing/madrid-plan-of-action-and-its-implementation.html

Frustrated that the Madrid Plan of Action received little attention, the UN General Assembly established the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) in 2010. The OEWG is recognized as the most prominent international forum specifically devoted to the rights of older persons; it meets annually in New York for progress reporting and agenda setting by Member States. In 2012, the UN General Assembly resolved (67/139) that the OEWG shall, as part of its mandate, consider proposals for an international legal instrument to promote and protect the rights and dignity of older persons. https://undocs.org/A/RES/67/139.

Nevertheless, this has remained an elusive goal. At the tenth OEWG meeting in 2019, the UN High Commissioner For Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addressed the gathering and lamented that, “existing international human rights instruments are silent on older persons.” She again called for a dedicated convention to establish “much needed international standards related to the human rights of older persons” and to “put in place monitoring mechanisms for accountability and redress to ensure the implementation of measures to protect, respect, and fulfill the human rights of older persons.”

Synergy with CEDAW: Commissioner Bachelet’s concern about the persistent lack of explicit UN standards and legal conventions to protect the human rights of older persons has been echoed by the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which has been proactive on behalf of older women.1

In 2002, CEDAW reported that age is one of the grounds on which women may suffer multiple forms of discrimination. In 2010, CEDAW adopted General Recommendation No. 27 on Older Women and Protection of Their Human Rights.2 This Recommendation highlighted data demonstrating the demographic trend that the 21st Century is the “Century of Ageing,” with issues that deeply affect countries across the globe and at varying levels of development. https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/CEDAW-C-2010-47-GC1.pdf

CEDAW’s wide-ranging 2010 Recommendation begins by declaring that “States must recognize that older women are an important resource to society” and calling for States to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to eliminate discrimination against older women to “ensure that older women participate fully and effectively in the political, social, cultural and civil life, and any other field in their societies.” The importance of women’s participation in public and political life is emphasized in Section 39 of the Recommendation:

39. States parties have an obligation to ensure that older women have the opportunity to participate in public and political life, and hold public office at all levels, and that older women have the necessary documentation to register to vote and run as candidates for election.

Synergy with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Older persons’ rights — the focus of the OEWG and CEDAW General Recommendation No. 27 — also are reflected in the United Nations plan of action to achieve sustainable development on our planet by 2030. Although there is not a specific set-aside goal for older persons, ageing implicitly cuts across many of the 17 SDGs, including the goals on poverty eradication, healthy living, decent work, and reduced inequalities. As emphasized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is important to go beyond recognizing older persons as a vulnerable group and to recognize older persons as active agents of societal development. The full brief may be found at https://www.un.org/development/desa/ageing/news/2017/07/ageing-older-persons-and-the-2030-agenda-for-sustainable-development/.

Conclusion: The League of Women Voters’ Impact on Issues 2018-2020 contains an all-inclusive position for equal rights: “Secure equal rights and equal opportunity for all. Promote social and economic justice and the health and safety of all Americans” (p. 8). As we move further into the 21st “Century of Ageing,” local, state, and national Leagues may determine that a more explicit focus on ageing is warranted. Stay tuned.


i. Although the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was signed by President Carter in 1980, it has never been brought to a vote by the full US Senate. Nonetheless, the League of Women Voters has been vocal in its support of CEDAW, submitting testimony in support of ratification to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 and again in 2011 to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Civil and Constitutional Rights. See our Human Rights Team’s review of CEDAW.

ii. CEDAW Recommendations, adopted following its annual meetings, are intended to raise attention and accelerate action toward critical issues.

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