CYIL Vol. 7, 2016

CYIL 7 ȍ2016Ȏ TOWARDS A NEW CONVENTION FOR THE PROTECTON OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS this law. That is where a special legal status entailing group-specific human rights might be needed. Introducing such a status is, however, not without risks. It might be taken as a confirmation of the existence of the group with the various negative characteristics that are assigned to it. Instead of helping overcome stereotypes, a group-based approach to human rights can actually reaffirm them. It may also vindicate the view that the main body of human rights law fully applies only to those strong in flesh, mind and social status, whereas everyone else has to have a special regime apart. Group-based vulnerability thus risks making us blind to universal and particular vulnerability. This problem arises particularly acutely in the case of older persons. Social construction plays a much more important role here than with respect to other vulnerable groups not only when assigning certain characteristics to the members of this group but also when defining who these members actually are. The concept of old age differs significantly over time and space: a society in which life expectancy does not exceed 35 would understand old age differently than a society where a third of the population is over 60. This variation is also reflected, and acknowledged, in official definitions. Whereas for the UN, older persons are those aged 60 years or over, the World Health Organization (WHO) sets the threshold at 50 (for its programmes in Africa) 12 and the European Union at 65. 13 Public opinion polls show that people’s perception of what it means to be old varies in the function of the society in which an individual lives as well as of his/her own age. Thus, for instance, in a study carried out by the Pew Research Center in the US, respondents under 30 set the beginning of old age (in response to the question At what age does the average person become old?) at 60, those aged 30-64 at 69-72 and those aged 65+ at 74. 14 Moreover, old age is not always determined simply and solely by years of life. Other factors – typically the social role or the (in)ability to actively contribute to society – may be taken into account in the interpretation of the notion. This is true both in traditional societies where birth registers are not necessarily available, 15 and in the modern societies, in which the beginning of old age is frequently identified with the moment of retirement. 16 Since people retire at different ages, the definition 12 WHO, Definition of an older or elderly person. Proposed Working Definition of an Older Person in Africa for the MDS Project , online at (retrieved on 23 May 2016). 13 DAVIES, Ron, Older people in Europe EU policies and programmes, Briefing, European Parliamentary Research Service, 6 May 2014. 14 Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality , Pew Research Center, 2009. 15 See GORMAN, Mark, Development and the rights of older people. In: RANDEL, Judith, GERMAN, Tony, EWING. Debora (eds), The ageing and development report: poverty, independence and the world’s older people, London : Earthscan Publications Ltd., 1999, pp. 3-21. 16 THANE, Pat, History and the sociology of ageing, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1989, pp. 93-96.


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