The fourth meeting under the theme of ‘Talking about the Human Rights of Older Persons’ took place online on April 22, 2021 with Ms. Anna Chabiera, Expert on the Rights of Older Persons at the Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights in Poland and the European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI). Ms. Chabiera has been active in fighting ageism in Poland and in calling for preparing a new binding instrument to protect the rights of older persons, namely a new Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. During the meeting, she introduced the key activities of ENNHRI and its recent engagement regarding the human rights of older persons, and talked about how perceptions of ageism and the human rights of older persons have changed over the years at the European and international levels, particularly with reference to the recent Eleventh Session of the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA), held from March 29 to April 1, 2021.
1. The Introduction of ENNHRI
The European Network of National Human Rights Institutions (ENNHRI) brings together over 40 National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) across Europe to promote and protect human rights in the region. The network operates as a platform for collaboration and solidarity in addressing human rights challenges and a common voice for NHRIs at the European level. NHRIs are state-mandated bodies, but independent of government, with a broad constitutional or legal mandate to promote and protect human rights at the national level – they are funded not by government but by parliament on constitutional grounds. They can take different forms such as ombudsman institutions and human rights commissions. The main roles of ENNHRI are to strengthen NHRIs by facilitating the exchange of information and good practices, and to support NHRIs in order for them to be in compliance with the UN Paris Principles during their establishment and accreditation and when they come under threat. NHRIs are periodically accredited before the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the Global Alliance of NHRIs (GANHRI) in accordance with their level of compliance with international standards. NHRIs are accredited with one of the following three statuses: A status (fulling compliant), B status (partly compliant) and no status (not compliant). ENNHRI runs an Accreditation Support Group and gathers accreditation expertise from different types of institutions across Europe.
2. ENNHRI’s Recent Project on the Human Rights of Older Persons
In the face of a rapidly ageing population across Europe, NHRIs in the region are increasingly working on the promotion and protection of the rights of older persons. ENNHRI is aware of the fact that while older persons have the same rights as others, these rights are often not adequately protected and are scattered throughout different legal instruments, leaving a risk that older persons could be neglected in the implementation, monitoring and reporting of human rights. NHRIs advise governments on policy and legislation affecting the rights of older persons, monitor and report on older persons’ enjoyment of human rights in practice and combat discrimination on grounds of age. ENNHRI supports NHRIs’ work in this area by exchanging evidence of good practices through comparative research, informing NHRIs of relevant legislative and policy developments at the European and global levels. From 2015 to 2017, ENNHRI implemented a leading project focused on the human rights protection of older persons in long-term care, with a focus on residential care. This research was funded by the European Commission and conducted desk-based research on the human rights standards relevant to older persons in long-term care and developed a toolkit for a human-rights approach to care. It then brought European NHRIs together to address the life experiences of older persons in long-term care. Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania and Romania conducted monitoring of residential long-term care, reported on their findings and provided recommendations to national authorities. As an outcome of this research, ENNHRI published in 2017 an overview report titled ‘We have the same rights: the Human Rights of Older Persons in Long-term Care in Europe’. ENNHRI also engages with the Council of Europe to advocate for recommendations calling on the governments to realize the rights of older persons in practice. In addition, it facilitates European NHRI’s participation at the Working Group on Ageing of GANHRI and cooperates with it for all engagements at the UN level on the rights of older persons.
3. ENNHRI and the Eleventh Session of the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA)
While there is growing awareness of the importance of the human rights of older persons within ENNHRI, arguably the rights of older persons have not been considered priority compared to other rights. In fact, there are several working groups on various issues, but there is no working group on ageing within ENNHRI. However, there are a few positive and noteworthy developments. First, several like-minded countries activated the Members-led Initiative in preparation for the Eleventh Session of the UN Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) that took place from March 29 to April 1, 2021. With the consent of the ENNHRI Secretariat, Ms. Chabiera (Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights in Poland) and her Georgian counterpart called for ENNHRI member countries to form a group that promotes the human rights of older persons. Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Poland, the UK, Slovakia, Lithuania, Georgia and Romania responded to the call. These countries showed different levels of engagement and commitment to the human rights of older persons. Among these, Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Poland and Georgia are most active and some are only interested in being updated on the activities of the group. The group closely collaborated in preparation for and at the Session. A Belgian colleague prepared a statement which was presented by Croatian Ombudswoman on behalf of ENNHRI. Colleagues from Germany, Georgia, Poland, Croatia and Finland shared speaking slots, met prior to the Session to discuss agendas and jointly discussed and finalized also other statements. One might say that this initiative is limited in that it did not come from a high-level political drive and that the group consists mainly of working-level staff. Similarly, some point out that the OEWGA meeting was attended by few countries and attracted little attention. Unlike this pessimistic view, Ms. Chabiera thinks that this initiative is a significant step to engaging more closely with the issues of the human rights of older persons at the ENNHRI level. Furthermore, she sees the situation rather positively, to the extent that key countries in Europe such as Germany, Austria and the UK have slowly been changing their stances and becoming more open for further discussion. Of course, a long journey is ahead before finally adopting a UN Convention. Nevertheless, it gives an impression that a group of core countries is setting the trend moving towards comprehensive protection of the rights of older persons, hopefully in the form of a UN Convention.
Another key development that was noteworthy at the OEWGA this year was that Ms. Chabiera, together with her Georgian colleagues, proposed a joint statement for NHRs and NGOs. The statement reiterated that a UN Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons should be adopted as the best means to safeguard the rights of older persons and that it is high time to start drafting a Convention. It was signed by fourteen NHRIs and 37 NGOs all over the world. This is the first kind of statement signed both by NHRIs and NGOs - among the fourteen NHRIs, twelve are from Europe and the other two signatories are El Salvador and the Philippines. The high number of European signatories can be explained by the fact that there was already close cooperation between several European countries as addressed above with the Members-led Initiative. Another important achievement with this statement is that there has been convergence between NHRIs and NGOs, which made their voice stronger. The continuous and relentless engagement of many representatives of different sectors provides us with good reasons to take part in this journey towards adopting a new Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons.
4. ENNHRI and the Human Rights of Older Persons
Since the completion of the ENNRHI’s project on the Human Rights of Older Persons in Long-term Care in Europe in 2017, there has been a long break in research on the human rights of older persons. While ENNHRI offers support, the topic is still not among the top priorities and thus suffers from a lack of funding.However, ENNRHI, as a network of NHRIs, has a clear official position on a UN convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons – in 2013, it made an official statement in support of it. ENNRHI has consistently called for a shift from a social rights-based approach to a human rights-based one.This is in fact in line with EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA)’s report ‘Shiftingperceptions: towards a rights-based approach to ageing’ published in 2018.A key aspect of the human-rights-based approach is to recognize the diversity that exists among older persons, and to move away from a paternalistic view that perceives older persons as vulnerable so that they are posited as subjects to be looked after rather than as independent and autonomous agents.
Finally, Ms. Chabiera expressed her keen interest in working and collaborating with other partners operating in other regions as part of GHANHI to promote the human rights of older persons. As the representative of Poland, she has officially been part of GHANHI’s working group on ageing since November 2020. She also showed a great interest in taking part in AGAC’s events and projects.
Hae-Yung Song (email@example.com)