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International Legal Standards, Principles and Commitments

The Second World War was a tragedy of massive proportions, resulting in the death of some 50 million persons (24 million civilians), and enormous destruction. In its wake, the international community recognized the essential links between international peace and security, human rights, and social and economic development, and sought to design a new legal framework for this purpose. In the UN Charter and a number of treaties, States have undertaken binding obligations to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to promote better living conditions for all. Six major conventions contain provisions with regard to civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; racial discrimination; discrimination against women; torture; and the rights of children. In addition, instruments of humanitarian law seek to protect civilians during armed conflict and to alleviate their suffering. 

These treaties have been supplemented by a variety of declarations, principles and other commitments which are not legally binding but are seen as having moral force and which provide practical guidance not only to States but also to international agencies and other organizations in their conduct.

Although the provisions of these documents are broadly applicable to the population as a whole, therefore also to older persons, age has usually not been highlighted as an important factor for international attention until relatively recently. This "invisibility" of older persons has meant that their suffering has remained unrecorded, and that they have often been neglected in the elaboration and delivery of international assistance programs. During the past decade, the increased targeting of civilians and massive refugee flows in numerous armed conflicts, coupled with the rapid aging of the population in most countries, have led governments and international agencies and NGOs to recognize that older persons have specific vulnerabilities, needs and capabilities that have to be addressed in order to facilitate recovery for the society as a whole after a conflict. This has resulted in new international commitments aimed specifically at older persons.

This section will summarize the most significant international agreements that are of relevance for the protection of older persons in conflict situations. Click on the links to get the full text of the documents themselves. Click on the names of the relevant UN agencies for a brief summary of their work.

The Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (IV Geneva Convention), of 12 August 1949 is the main instrument of international humanitarian law for the protection of civilians in all cases of declared war or other armed conflict between States parties to the Convention, including all cases of foreign occupation even when there is no armed resistance to it. Additional Protocols I and II of 7 June 1977 have clarified and extended its provisions to cover cases in which people are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right to self-determination; and internal conflicts in which dissident forces control part of the territory. 

The Convention does not differentiate on the basis of status or social category - although a number of articles single out the needs of the elderly for special attention and protection (arts. 14, 17, 27, 85 and 119). Grave breaches of the Convention are considered war crimes and have been invoked in recent prosecutions by international tribunals (and by national courts in countries that have accepted the principle of universal jurisdiction in such cases). Grave breaches include: wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, unlawful deportation or transfer, illegal detention, denial of the right to a fair trial, hostage-taking, collective punishments, destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity and carried out arbitrarily, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian property carried out in the knowledge that they will result in loss of lives, transferring a State's own civilian population into an occupied territory, unjustifiable delays in the repatriation of war prisoners or civilians, apartheid and similar practices. 

Under the terms of the Convention, the International Committee of the Red Cross has a special role in providing protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict. Click on the link to find out more about its activities targeted to helping the elderly.

The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 28 July 1951 and the Protocol of 31 January 1967 are the primary international instruments defining who can qualify for refugee status and setting out the rights, including human rights, of refugees. The Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees by host countries and contains various safeguards against their expulsion or involuntary return to the country they fled from. It also makes provision for the issuance of identity papers, including travel documents. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the agency established to promote respect for the Convention and supervise its application. However, the Convention is not applicable to the 4 million Palestinian refugees (for whom the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East was established); or those who have been given status equivalent to nationals in their country of refuge.

The Convention is applicable to all who qualify as refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. It does not specifically refer to older refugees (except for a request that they be included in national social security schemes). According to recent estimates by UNHCR, however, the proportion of older refugees (those over 65) is about 10% of the worldwide total of 15 million persons, highlighting the scale of the problem posed by identifying and meeting the needs of such a vulnerable group. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Convention in 2001, a series of global consultations were carried out in order to assess and improve the protections afforded by the Convention in light of current realities, with the involvement of States parties, international humanitarian agencies, NGOs, and refugee representatives. The result was a new Agenda for Protection, consisting of a Declaration in which States parties undertook to strengthen protective measures for refugees giving special attention to vulnerable groups and individuals with special needs, including the elderly; and a multi-year Program of Action which includes provisions for age-sensitive application of the refugee regime as a whole.

Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were prepared under the sponsorship of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1998, reflecting concern over the humanitarian challenges presented by the over 20 million people worldwide who are internally displaced persons (IDPs), namely people who have been forcibly uprooted from their homes during conflicts, but who are still living inside their countries and are therefore not covered by provisions for refugees. The Principles aim to provide protection against arbitrary displacement, offer a basis for protection and assistance during displacement, and set forth guarantees for safe return, resettlement and reintegration. Principle 4 includes age among the grounds for non-discrimination, and specifies that elderly persons are to be included among the vulnerable groups entitled to special protection and assistance.

In the Political Declaration and World Plan of Action adopted by the World Assembly on Aging held in Madrid in 2002, governments for the first time elaborated a comprehensive set of commitments specifically targeted at the problems faced by older persons in conflict situations. In the Declaration, Governments committed themselves "to protect and assist older persons in situations of armed conflict and foreign occupation" (art.9). In the International Plan of Action (Ch. I, 8) they recognized the special vulnerabilities of older persons in humanitarian emergencies as well as the positive contribution they can make in coping with these situations and in promoting rehabilitation and reconstruction. The Plan of Action spells out a variety of actions by Governments and international agencies in order to ensure two main objectives, namely: equal access by older persons to food, shelter and medical care and other services during and after such emergencies; and enhanced contributions of older persons to the reestablishment and reconstruction of communities and the rebuilding of the social fabric following emergencies. 

Prepared by the International Human Rights Education Group for Global Action on Aging (ihredu@yahoo.com)


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