Rights matter more than ever

I am writing this in New York City at the end of a week when I have had the privilege of being an accredited participant at the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG). OEWG has met every year over the last 14 years and was established by the United Nations General Assembly because of a growing clamour from some nations who wanted to see the development of an internationally binding legal framework to protect the rights of older persons. This was nothing new – indeed from the earliest years of the UN Argentina and others had continually campaigned for such a Convention to be created. Yet consistently there had been failed attempts to get it off the ground. OEWG was set up to identify whether there were any ‘gaps’ in existing human rights protections. At various points over the last 14 years, it felt it had done its work only to be sent away again to do more … until this week.

This year in a historic moment on Tuesday a decision was taken ‘by consensus’ to put forward a report suggesting that there were gaps which needed to be filled and to offer some solutions including the creation of a new instrument, a Convention. Yesterday it was decided that this decision should be passed to the UN General Assembly session. So significant progress. I was honoured to be part of the week and to have played a small role in the events by addressing the Session on Tuesday morning. Throughout the week I heard moving and passionate speeches from people who evidenced the harrowing harm and abuse that so many older people are suffering across the world, of the economic harm and abandonment of millions more, and of the desire for millions to be allowed their voice and to find their seat at the table of decision-making and government. But I also witnessed the art of political negotiation, international compromise, vacillating excuse, and blatant national self-interest.

At the end of such a momentous week I am left in a reflective mood about whether or not all this matters. Does any of it have any consequence for the experience of older people anywhere never mind in Scotland. And I am reflecting on all this at a time when a UK General Election has just been called during which I really hope that we will have debates and discussions on the experience of older people and most especially the nature of social care.

In short, I really do believe that for the advancement of all older people and their human rights that an International Convention on the Rights of Older Persons is urgently needed (and I hope the Human Rights Council in Geneva will soon start working on it when the General Assembly so instructs). I would argue that this is the case because as citizens of a global world we cannot but be connected to one another. The passionate Argentinian advocate Alex Kalache spoke of a visit to a favella on the edge of Rio where he stood talking to a woman knowing that 800 metres away the houses of the rich and wealthy meant that their residents were likely to live 20 years longer than the residents of the favella. The old woman Nina asked him ‘Do you know where my parents are?’ And he responded, ‘No I don’t.’ and she said ‘They are underneath your feet. We could not afford to bury them elsewhere, we could not afford it – so they are here.’ This sad encounter is indicative of the grinding poverty and socio-economic injustice which faces many older people; from those who lose their properties when they get old, to those who are abandoned by their families and made homeless because they have ceased to be useful and economically contributive. All of this might seems light years away from our lived experience in Scotland, but if there is anything about the Scottish character that is worthy of acclaim, it is our awareness that we are all ‘our brother and sister’s keeper’, we are all linked to one another in a common humanity and co-responsibility.

We could just rest in Scotland, struggle even more for the rights of older Scots, fight to ensure a better social care system, work for a reduction in discrimination and ageism; we could and will continue to campaign for an Older Persons Commissioner and the rights of older persons to be explicitly evident in any new Human Rights Bill; we could and will continue to call out the economic injustices which treat older people less favourably, to highlight the grinding poverty so many of our older Scots endure. But we also I believe have to do more. Putting our own house in order without sorting the mess of the world in which it is set is simply a retreat from responsibility. Human rights matter for all, everywhere and at all times.

In the coming weeks during a General Election political parties of all colours will engage in an appeal to self-interest – that is almost an inevitability of the political struggle and class. But I earnestly hope that we will also be able to ask questions, make challenges, and raise the voice of those not here but with whom we are global citizens, because what we decide and the government we elect makes a difference to them. Sustainability of our planet is not just an ecological question it is a profoundly demographic challenge and as the population of the world ages the way we address that reality matters.

In my speech at the United Nations, I tried to argue that the creation of a Convention certainly would offer protection for the world’s older people (protection and safeguards which are not there) but that just like the UN Charter in 1948 it also offers us potential. It offers us the ability to recognise the inherent dignity which comes with being old, it offers us the ability to celebrate the giftedness of age with all the richness of its diversity and experience, its creativity and contribution. We have to challenge the ageism which suggests that the old are yesterday’s humans and that the future belongs to a younger generation. Such ageism is rife across the globe. I heard this week that even in a document which is being drafted at the UN about the future – there is barely a mention of the old.

The older generation are as much the future as they have been the past. To deny their contribution, their capacity, their inventiveness, their entrepreneurship, is to limit all our futures. I hope in our own General Election we will not witness such stereotypes and stigma but will witness acceptance that the future belongs to us all, old and young alike. I also hope that our own political parties will come out and clearly state that they are in favour of a UN Convention on the Rights of Older Persons, so that we affirm our belonging one to the other.

During the week I spent some time getting away from the noise and heat of the debate and discussion, the politics and politicking and I wandered around and found a place in front of a painting which had been gifted to the UN by El Salvador in 2019. It was titled Mi Pueblo by Camilo Minero. Minero was a prominent Salvadoran painter, muralist, and engraver. The colourful painting has two themes, one is peace, represented by the light of the sun and the abundance of the natural world. The second theme is human rights, represented in the faces of children, the labouring hands of workers, and the hopeful look of the population that works for a better future.  All living their lives unimpeded under the guarantee of peace.

That should surely be the aspiration of us all, a world where we can live our lives with no discrimination. I am pleased to leave the UN knowing that the struggle for the rights of all including older people lives on but that it is also one that is worth the fight. For me rights matter today more than ever.

Donald Macaskill