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Symposium addresses abuse and neglect of older persons

On 17-18 June 2013, to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, the Regional Office for Europe of OHCHR and the Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion of the European Commission held a joint regional symposium entitled “Preventing abuse and neglect of older persons in Europe”. It brought together representatives of EU Member States and European Union institutions, civil society organizations as well as representatives of other international and regional organizations (UNECE, OECD and the Council of Europe). It was the first such collaboration on the part of the European Commission and the Regional Office for Europe of OHCHR.

Professor Alexandre Kalache, President, International Longevity Centre, Christian Courtis, OHCHR, Barbro Westerholm, Member of Swedish Parliament and Sarah Rochira, Older People's Commissioner for Wales © Maciej Szkopanski, European CommissionThe symposium was innovative in bridging the worlds of health and social policy and human rights. As European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor stated in his keynote speech, “although these two constituencies may seem very different and far apart, and some may even say that they speak different languages, I do believe that they must come together if we want to tackle the issue this symposium is about.” The results of two different but complementary studies on elder abuse, conducted by the OECD and by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, were presented at the symposium by OECD’s Senior Health Policy Analyst, Francesca Colombo and by Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Professor Michael O’Flaherty.

“It is vital to include a rights-based perspective in documents dealing with elder abuse and neglect and in to evaluations of quality of care for older persons,” said OHCHR Regional Representative Jan Jařab. He highlighted the results of the Northern Irish study, In Defense of Dignity, as a clear example that a rights-based approach was not merely an academic issue, but a very practical one. “If quality of care evaluations are built on a purely technocratic rather than based on the actual experience of the rights-holders, they might overlook serious problems,” said Jan Jařab.

Professor Gerard Quinn, Director of the Centre on International Disability Law and Policy at the National University of Ireland, drew the parallel between rights of persons with disabilities and those of older persons. “Both persons with disability and older persons were treated as objects of care and pity rather than as subjects with their own will and preference, with their own personal goals and with equal humanity,” said Professor Quinn. “The change in framing the question – from welfare to rights – requires challenging the ‘invisibility’ of persons with disabilities or older persons.” He explained why voice, choice and participation were the core areas of the Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. “Choice has to do with decisions – big and small – that affect our personal destinies, and one of the most important choices has to do with where to live, with whom and under what conditions.”

One of the panels also addressed the arguments for and against a potential new international instrument for rights of older persons, with Member States expressing divergent opinions. Anne-Sophie Parent, Secretary General of AGE Platform Europe, urged States to show that they are serious about participation of older persons and their representatives by taking their views – largely favourable to a new instrument – into account in their approach to discussions about a potential new convention. Professor Quinn pointed out that a new Convention “could demonstrate that policies concerning older persons are not outside the domain of human rights” while Professor O’Flaherty urged older persons’ advocacy groups not to miss opportunities provided by the existing international human rights framework.

“We may have varied views on the usefulness of a potential new instrument,” concluded Regional Representative Jan Jařab, “but we surely do not need to wait for a potential new Convention to start applying human rights standards in policies for older persons. The application of a rights-based approach to policies concerning older persons is long overdue – let’s start now.”

Feedback from participants highlighted the usefulness of bridging the worlds of human rights and health/social policy. The symposium ended with consensus that a continued dialogue between the various actors present would be highly desirable.

Presentations from the symposium can be found here.

19 June 2013