Is aging with dignity a human right? U.S., Europe say ‘No’
Millions of seniors in the United States live in vulnerable and precarious conditions. In another 15 years, 18 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. Although their numbers may be increasing, however, their security is not. Meanwhile, the richest countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, are arguing against applying a human rights framework to aging. In part, their contrarian stance reflects the market ideology in which people lose their social importance and position when they are not working and producing value.
Adopting new definitions and international conventions on human rights (especially economic ones), even if they are not immediately implemented, helps to set a vision of how we want the world to work. The Organization of American States (OAS) recently adopted the first international convention on the human rights of older people yet it is not endorsed by the U.S.
The convention of the Organization of American States (OAS) enumerates 27 specific rights, with many subcategories, such as the right to independence, political participation, a healthy environment and freedom from violence. Among the economic key rights, the OAS convention asserts, is that older people “have the right to social security to protect them so that they can live in dignity.” It adds that governments should provide income “to ensure a dignified life for older persons.” Seniors also have the right to “dignified and decent work” with benefits, labor and union rights and pay equal to all other workers. Older people have the right to healthcare, housing and education. They should also be able to “participate in the cultural and artistic life of the community, and to enjoy the benefits of scientific and technological progress.”
The U.S. government does not recognize many of these rights, however—to housing, income, education, and healthcare, for instance. These are all market commodities. A“cost/benefit analysis” is used —weighing the need to ensure a dignified life for seniors against the cost of providing it. Social welfare programs in the U.S.A. result from popular struggle against the inherent demand of a market economy for as high a rate of profit as possible. Old people, children, the disabled and others who don’t immediately produce profit are a social cost, and vulnerable in a system like this. When popular movements weaken, the safety net starts pulling apart. U.S. opposition to a human rights treaty for the elders is based not on a lack of morality, uncaring politics, or bad intentions, but on the way the system functions.
In declining to endorse the convention on aging, the U.S. government declared to the OAS, “The United States has consistently objected to the negotiation of new legally binding instruments on the rights of older persons. ... We do not believe a convention is necessary to ensure that the human rights of older persons are protected. ... The resources of the OAS and of its member states should be used to identify practical steps that governments in the Americas might adopt to combat discrimination against older persons.” Instead of having to abide by a binding agreement, each country should be free to do as it chooses.
A proposed U.N. convention has been stalled over disagreements, opposition is coming from the U.S., Australia, Israel and the European Union. Susan Somers, president of the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse explains “They think it’s going to cost them something, and that older people aren’t deserving…”
According to Lia Daichman, president of the Argentina chapter of the International Longevity Alliance, and the ILA’s representative at the United Nations, “Governments should guarantee that all people have a non-contributory pension, to be able to live without the support of younger people.” Daichman doesn’t view elders as needy people seeking charity. “People have a right to income and a dignified life,” she asserts. “They worked all their lives for it. Human rights are at the core of everything,” Daichman says. “The rights of people getting old should be considered human rights because they’re human beings.”