The United Nations General Assembly established the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWGA) in 2010 with a mandate to consider the existing international framework for the human rights of older persons and identify possible gaps and how best to address them. This included exploring the feasibility of new “instruments and measures,” which range from aspirational memos to binding U.N. conventions (a type of treaty). The goal is to strengthen the protection of human rights of older persons.
...the group has focused on particular human rights topics as they apply to older persons, including equality and non-discrimination; violence, neglect and abuse; autonomy and independence; long-term and palliative care; and social protection and social security
The first session of the OEWGA took place on February 15, 2011. In subsequent annual sessions the group has focused on particular human rights topics as they apply to older persons, including equality and non-discrimination; violence, neglect and abuse; autonomy and independence; long-term and palliative care; and social protection and social security. Future topics will likely include access to justice, health care, and housing. Because these subjects are viewed as overlapping and interdependent, the deliberations are not siloed.
By far, the most repeatedly debated issue is whether there is a need for a specialized, binding convention on the rights of older persons. Virtually every participating non-governmental organization (NGO) and many nations have argued that existing human rights instruments fail to recognize older persons as clear rights holders in all aspects of human rights laws. Other nations, including the U.S., argue that existing instruments cover older persons adequately and that all that is needed is better implementation strategies.
Participation does not require you to stick your head out. You can observe or put your name in the cue to deliver comments (called “interventions”)...You will find tremendous professional benefit from participating, both in terms of learning about U.N. processes and experiencing the diversity of international aging advocacy.
Which way the pendulum swings in this debate will depend to a large extent on NGOs that advocate for or serve older persons. NGOs have played a major role in the Working Group’s discussions and can participate via a fairly simple credentialing process. The process harkens back to the creation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the success of which depended heavily on the voice of NGOs. NGOs overwhelmingly favor a convention but lack the critical mass necessary to make U.N. member states heed their call.
Numbers really do count. There are countless U.S. NGOs that would never consider playing a role in U.N. affairs, let alone even try to understand the working of such a complex organization. However, it is easier than you think. Participating organizations have developed materials that explain the issues and can assist in learning U.N. procedures (see below). Becoming familiar with them will well equip you to be an expert advocate for a convention. The next step is to have your organization accredited to attend future meetings. The Working Group posts instructions. Accreditation is granted to organizations (not individuals) and only have to be accredited once. The application asks for information about organizations' competence and the relevance of their activities to OEWGA's work. If your group serves or advocates for elders, you probably qualify. The UN Secretariat reviews applications using standardized criteria, which include equitable geographic distribution. The OEWGA, by motion and vote, makes accreditation final. If approved, your organization can register up to five representatives to OEWGA meetings.
Participation does not require you to stick your head out. You can observe or put your name in the cue to deliver comments (called “interventions”). Written submissions are also usually invited on specific topics that the Working Group plans to address.
You will find tremendous professional benefit from participating, both in terms of learning about U.N. processes and experiencing the diversity of international aging advocacy. The meetings provide the opportunity to hear from and meet representatives from NGOs around the world and make new contacts with both U.S. and international advocates and leaders. Yes, there is the expense of traveling to and visiting New York, but if that challenge can be met, your organization can make a difference. As Woody Allen has said: 80 percent of success is showing up.
And yes, at the U.N., they do spell “Ageing” with an “e"!
About the Author
Charles P. Sabatino
The author is director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging which has participated as an accredited NGO in the meetings of U.N Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing since 2012. He specializes in health law, long-term care planning, and improving access to legal services for older adults. He is an adjunct professor in elder law at Georgetown University Law Center and a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.