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Submitted to the

   UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:  Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Unit, Policy Development and Studies Branch



  September 16, 2003


1. Older persons in armed conflict situations are exposed to danger like other civilians, but in addition, they have vulnerabilities and needs associated with ageing that place them at particular risk.  However, their special situation has been insufficiently recognized and addressed by humanitarian interventions targeted to vulnerable groups generally. Moreover, lack of understanding, even prejudice, towards older women and men often results in devaluation of their unique capacities and contributions and of the role they can and do play in the care of dependents, the mitigation of emergencies and the recovery of war-torn societies.

2. In recent years, the international community has begun to take action to redress this neglect.  In 2001 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees adopted a policy on older persons and in 2002, the Second World Assembly on Ageing adopted specific policy commitments concerning older persons in emergency situations.  Nevertheless, much still needs to be done both in terms of making older persons 'visible' and in ensuring that their specific needs for protection and assistance are met.  The Security Council can play an important role in mainstreaming concern for, and action on, older persons in its ongoing consideration of issues relating to the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

3. This paper aims to provide a short summary of the issues and of international standards and commitments, and to submit recommendations for OCHA's consideration in preparing its periodic report to the Council.

The Issues

4. With the ageing of the population worldwide, an increasing number of older persons have become victims of armed conflicts and their plight is posing new challenges for international organizations. For example, UNHCR estimates that 10% of refugees are over age 60. Regrettably, the lack of attention given so far to older persons means that comprehensive information on the impact on older persons is lacking for most conflict situations of concern to the international community. 

5. Recent field research[i] has identified the following areas in which older persons face particular problems and where action by the international community is required:

Denial of, and lack of access to, humanitarian resources: Older people 'fight a losing battle in the competition for resources'. Because of their poor mobility and lower physical strength, they are less able to access centralized relief and service delivery points, or to compete with others for food and medical services in chaotic emergency situations.  They are often left out of emergency rationing processes.

Loss of livelihood:  Older persons are particularly at risk from the disappearance of sources of income during conflict, whether from loss of land, employment or social security/pension schemes, which impacts negatively not only on them but also on household members dependent on them. Documentation is also often lost which makes it very difficult to access assets, such as property, and benefits.

Isolation: During armed conflict, older people may be deliberately left behind to guard land and property, and also abandoned in the chaos as other family members escape.  They may be unable to fend for themselves because of the destruction of communities and social support systems. Few agencies provide tracing and family reunification programs for older adults, resulting in their permanent abandonment and neglect.

Age and gender discrimination: The traditional skills, experience, local knowledge and coping strategies of older persons are important to mitigating the impact of conflict and to social recovery. Yet their contributions are often unrecognized and undervalued. Older persons are often seen as unproductive, unable to learn and a 'poor investment' and are therefore usually excluded from rehabilitation programs, particularly micro-credit and skills training. They are rarely if ever consulted in decisions affecting them, their families and communities.  Emergency delivery and shelter arrangements may be incompatible with the cultural norms and beliefs of older people, leading de facto to their exclusion from emergency responses.   Older women are particularly at risk in some cultures where they may be denied inheritance rights or employment opportunities even though they may have primary responsibility for the care of children and other relatives. Older persons of both genders are thus prevented from re-establishing self-sufficiency and playing a role in rebuilding their society.

6. The field studies, including participatory research with older women and men,[ii] have emphasized the importance of integrating older persons in existing mechanisms rather than the establishment of separate services for them.  Older persons wish to be 'seen, heard and understood'[iii] and to be considered full partners in reconstruction and rehabilitation measures.

International provisions

7. Older persons are entitled to equal protection under international human rights and humanitarian law as members of the general population. However, age is not specifically mentioned in these instruments as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination (which are considered non-derogable even in situations of national emergency).   At least one human rights treaty body has noted that existing provisions can be interpreted as including age, and has ruled that States parties have an obligation to promote and protect the rights of older persons.[iv]  

8. Some instruments of humanitarian law allow for special consideration to be given to age in certain circumstances (Third Geneva Convention, arts. 16, 44, 45 and 49; Fourth Geneva Convention, art. 27 para.3, 85 para.2, 119 para.2). The Fourth Convention also includes special protections for older persons with regard to the establishment of hospitals and safety zones (art. 14, para.1), and evacuation from besieged areas (art.17). The Refugee Convention provides for inclusion of refugees in old age pension schemes in the host country (art. 24(b)).

9. In response to increased international concern about the plight of older persons in conflict situations, both ICRC and UNHCR have adopted a number of concrete initiatives to improve awareness of needs and strengthen protection.[v] The Sphere Project, a network of humanitarian organizations, has developed a set of minimum standards for humanitarian action that include attention to age.[vi] In his report on the implementation of the Millennium Declaration, the UN Secretary-General has drawn attention to the needs and contributions of older persons as a vulnerable group and has called on the international community to make full use of their capabilities and talents.[vii]

10. Recently adopted normative standards and governmental commitments have given more systematic attention to the problems and rights of older persons in conflict situations. The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (1998) include age in the non-discrimination provision, and specify that older persons are entitled to special protection and assistance and to treatment which takes into account their special needs (principle 4).

11. In the Political Declaration adopted by the Second World Assembly on Ageing, governments have committed themselves "to protect and assist older persons in situations of armed conflict and foreign occupation" (art.9). The Madrid Plan of Action contains detailed recommendations under two main objectives: to ensure equal access by older persons to food, shelter and medical care and other services during and after humanitarian emergencies; and to enhance their contributions to the reestablishment and reconstruction of their communities and societies. ( Ch. I,8)  The General Assembly endorsed these documents in resolution 57/167 of 18 December 2002 and called upon Governments, the UN system and all other actors to take the necessary steps to implement them.

12. In refugee/displaced situations, mandated agencies will provide the necessary protection for all vulnerable groups. However, in situations where the State has collapsed or is minimally functional, but where the population has remained in place, it is likely that the responsibility for protection still lies with the State which is unable to provide. In cases of occupation, the responsibility lies with the Occupying Power. In these situations it is important that the responsibility for protection of vulnerable groups, including older persons, is clearly identified.


13. The Security Council adopted an aide memoire on 15 March 2002 (S/PRST/2002/6) as a means to facilitate its consideration of issues pertaining to protection of civilians, and decided to review and update the document as appropriate. The aide memoire contains a section on 'vulnerable populations' in general but does not contain specific reference to older persons.

14. In view of the fact that the international community has increasingly recognized the plight of older persons as an important emerging issue, it is recommended that the Security Council include this set of issues as an additional objective in a revision of its aide memoire.

15. The following formulation, based on the concerns mentioned above, is suggested:

PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: Effects on Older Persons

            Take action to ensure that the specific rights and needs of older persons for assistance and protection are addressed                  


Special measures to protect older persons in emergencies (locate and identify older persons at risk, with particular attention to the problems faced by women; ensure equal access to food, shelter, medical care and other services; facilitate evacuations and family reunification; raise awareness of older persons' needs among relief personnel);

Increased consultation and participation of older persons in rehabilitation programs, including access to micro-credit, skills training and employment opportunities, taking into account the special problems and needs of older women;

Recognize the potential of older persons as leaders in the family and community for social recovery and conflict resolution, including those living outside the country to contribute resources to reconstruction.

Monitoring and reporting on the situation of older persons.


[i] This information is drawn from the following studies: UNHCR,  UNHCR Assistance to Older Refugees  (1998) and Women, Children and Older Refugees: The Sex and Age Distribution of Refugee Populations with a Special Emphasis on UNHCR Policy Priorities (2001);  HelpAge International/ECHO/UNHCR, Older People in Disasters and Humanitarian Crises: Guidelines for Best Practice (London, 2000)

[ii]HelpAge International/ECHO/UNHCR, op.cit.

[iii] ibid., p.2

[iv] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment 6, The Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Older Persons (Thirteenth Session, 1995)

[v] UNHCR Policy on Older Refugees (EC/50/CRP.8, Annex I) (2000); Agenda for Protection (A/AC.96/965/Add.1)(2002); 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Plan of Action for the Years 2000-2003

[vi] A handbook containing the Humanitarian Charter and the Minimum Standards developed by the Sphere Project can be downloaded from www.sphereproject.org

[vii] A/57/270 (2002)


Laura Reanda, International Human Rights Education Group, was the principal drafter of this paper.


Susanne Paul, Global Action on Aging, 212 557.3163,  Susanne.Paul@globalaging.org
777 UN Plaza, 6J, New York , NY   10025   USA

Mark Gorman, Help Age International, 44 20 7278 7778, mgorman@helpage.org
PO Box 32832 , London , N1 9ZN , UK

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