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Human Rights Literacy and Definitions 


What are Human Rights? | What are the Rights of Older People? | The rights of older people are rarely addressed | What is a Convention? | What is a Human Right Convention? | What is a Treaty? | What does it mean to ratify a Treaty or Convention?


What are Human Rights?*

First of all it’s necessary to look at what we mean by human rights. 

• Human rights are the rights people are entitled to simply because they are human beings, irrespective of their
o Age,
o Citizenship
o Nationality,
o Race
o Ethnicity,
o Language,
o Gender,
o Sexuality,
o Or abilities

• The ideas when these inherent rights are respected, people are able to live lives of dignity and equality that are free from discrimination and fear.

• This concept of human rights has developed over time and has it origins in a wide range of philosophical, moral, religious, and political traditions. 

• There is no one, single historical narrative charting the evolution of rights to the understanding we have of them today. Instead the current concept of rights is an amalgamation of different religious, moral, philosophical, cultural, legal, and political belief systems. This is very important because it gives rights their universal relevance. 

• Human rights are valid universal claims regardless of whether they are officially recognized in law or not. The law and the state do not grant human rights. Instead the law provides a system that codifies human rights and makes them enforceable; International treaties, regional charters and national constitutions and legislation recognize and articulate human rights within a legal framework of government obligation and system of redress for violations. 

• Human rights are often divided into categories: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. 

What are the Rights of Older People?*

• A person’s human rights do not change as a person reaches 60 years old or are considered to be old by other social or cultural markers.

• You have the same rights when you are 59 as you do when you are 60.

• So when we talk about the rights of older people we are not talking about anything new or different. 

• However, due to the ageing process throughout the life course, some rights may have more pertinence in old age than at other times in someone’s life for example, the right to social security in the form of a pension once your working life is over.

• Men and women experience ageing differently so we also need to be mindful of the gendered nature of ageing and the impact this has an older woman and men’s rights.

• In addition, the presence of age discrimination also means that although a younger woman or man may not experience the violation of a particular right, for example access to health care, when they are younger, as they get older, they may find that right is less protected – for example there may be fewer health personnel trained in age-related illness to treat them, or they may no longer be able to get access that health care because they can’t walk as far as they used to get to the nearest health centre. 

• The rights of older persons predominantly addressed are access to health, social security, violence and the right to life, liberty and security of person, discrimination/ageism, rights related to living in care homes, property and inheritance and food security. 

• As populations age and demographics change, there may well emerge other and new types of discrimination that older people are subjected to. 

The rights of older people are rarely addressed*

But despite the fact that older people have the same rights as everyone else, this rights perspective or analysis is rarely made. This is important as it has wide ranging implication:

• Age discrimination is not considered as unacceptable as sexism or racism or homophobia or discrimination against disabled people.

• Older people remain invisible in the human rights discourse and the violation of their rights is not considered with the same seriousness as other groups, rights violations against whom is now widely accepted. For example when the Human Right Council in Geneva examines the rights record of Member States under the Universal Periodic Review system, the rights of children, women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples are all regularly addressed. Older people’s rights remain ignored. 

• Older people also often remain ignored in legislation, policies, programmes and budget allocation designed to link various rights eg in health policies or in inheritance legislation.

• And when older people are addressed, a welfarist approach is often taken: they are beneficiaries, recipients of help and not rights’ holders with legitimate political and legal claims on those who have the obligation to uphold their rights.

What is a Convention? 

A Convention is a treaty, usually of a multilateral nature. It is a written document adopted by Member States of international organizations such as the UN for their own regulation.
Example: Geneva Convention, an international agreement first signed in Geneva in 1864, and later revised, governing the status and treatment of captured and wounded military personnel and civilians in wartime.

What is a Human Right Convention?
A human right convention is an international legally binding  instrument for Member States that sign and ratify it. A State becomes party to a treaty by ratifying it—State voluntarily decides to be bound by the provisions of the relevant treaty. When a State becomes a party, it is obligated under international law to uphold and implement the provisions of the treaty. The legislation of the State party must be in conformity with the provisions of the treaty and cannot contradict it. Once the Human Right convention is ratified by the Member State, the human rights convention is adopted and has the status of "pacta sunt servanda"—Pacts must be respected”.

What is a Treaty? 

A Treaty is an international agreement in writing between two states (a bilateral treaty) or a number of states (a multilateral treaty). Such agreements can also be known as conventions, pacts, protocols, final acts, arrangements, and general acts. Treaties are binding in international law and constitute the equivalent of the municipal-law contract, conveyance, or legislation. Some treaties create law only for those states that are parties to them, some codify pre-existing customary international law, and some propound rules that eventually develop into customary international law, binding upon all states (e.g. the Genocide Convention). 

What does it mean to ratify a Treaty or Convention? 

It is a confirmation of an act. In international law—the approval of a treaty, usually by the head of state (or by the head of state and legislature). This takes place when documents of ratification are either exchanged or deposited with a named depositary. Normally a treaty states expressly whether it will bind a party as soon as it is signed by that party's representative or whether it requires ratification.

* Source: Bridget Sleap, HelpAge International



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