Older People

There is no specific binding international instrument in the area of age or older people, however, the main international human rights instruments (ICCPR and ICESCR) provide for the right to be free from discrimination on the grounds of, amongst other attributes, “other status”, which is said to include age. 

In addition, the United Nations Principles for Older Persons have been developed and are supported by Governments within Australia. These principles recognise rights to independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity of older persons.

There is a growing global push for a binding International Convention on the Rights of Older People.  Most recently, the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a resolution in December 2010 which resulted in the establishment of an Open Ended Working Group on Ageing. The Working Group’s mandate includes reviewing existing protection of older people’s human rights and considering how it may address any gaps. The Working Group had its first meeting in New York in April 2011 and is expected to have a second meeting in August 2011. See their website for further information. 

Ageism in Australia

Australia’s legal framework for protection against age discrimination has been described as possessing a low level of uniformity, enforceability and enforcement of both State and federal age discrimination legislation. The broadness of some of the exceptions and exemptions to the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth) undermine the effectiveness of the Act and the legislation does not adequately address systemic discrimination or promote substantive equality.

Ageism can be described as ‘a process of systematic stereotyping of, and discrimination against people’ simply because they are older. As described by the Australian Human Rights Commission, older individuals are ‘lumped together’ or thought of as all being the same just because of their age. This can lead to them being treated unfavourably. Unfortunately Ageism and age discrimination, that is, unlawful discrimination against an individual or group on the basis of their age, are entrenched features of Australian society. The broader community, including older people themselves, are often not aware of the myths and stereotypes they have accepted about the abilities and capacities of older people. Older workers often struggle against ageist attitudes of employers to be accepted for jobs for which they are well qualified. The Australian Human Rights Commission has identified age discrimination as the foremost barrier to the workforce participation of mature age workers. Planning of public facilities, access to public transport, including safe bus stops and accessible vehicles, and location of services do not take the needs of older people into account sufficiently. Age discrimination is also described as prevalent in assessing suitability for medical rehabilitation services, specifically for stroke and cardiac patients.

Social Inclusion and Elder Abuse

As well as discrimination, older people suffer exclusion, social isolation and elder abuse. Elder abuse, as defined by the World Health Organisation is ‘any act that causes harm to an older person that is carried out by someone they know and trust, such as family, friends or a carer' and may include physical, financial, psychological or sexual mistreatment and neglect. It is a human rights issue which requires an effective response from Government. Preventative strategies informed by human rights principles should be developed in all aspects of the private and public lives of older people, whether it be health, finance, education, care and support services or recreation.

What the UN Human Rights Council recommended in the Universal Periodic Review

In January 2011 Australia was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Council during the Universal Periodic Review (or UPR) (a process whereby the human rights performance of all UN member states is reviewed by other states). More information on Australia’s review is available here.  In June 2011 Australia provided its response to the 145 recommendations made by the Human Rights Council.

The Government has accepted over 90 per cent of the recommendations and has committed to incorporating the recommendations it has accepted into the National Human Rights Action Plan.

The Human Rights Council did not make any specific recommendations on Older People but a number of general recommendations are relevant. Australia has responded to these general recommendations as set out in the following table.




Continue to strengthen mechanisms for the effective incorporation of international human rights obligations and standards into its domestic legislation (recommendation 86.20).

Already reflected

Australia accepts the recommendation on the basis it is reflected in existing laws or policies and Australia will continue to take steps to achieve relevant outcomes.

Take measures to ensure equality, respect and participation in all rights and opportunities, and reduce social disparities which detract from the full and equal enjoyment of human rights (recommendations 86.49 and 86.50).

Already reflected

Bring Australia’s legislation and practices into line with international obligations (recommendation 86.17).


Australian Government practice is to satisfy itself that legislation and policies necessary to implement a treaty are in place before Australia becomes bound by it.

Strengthen Australia’s measures to promote multiculturalism and social inclusion, ensure equal and the full enjoyment of basic human rights of Australian citizens including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and if necessary effectively combat racial discrimination (recommendations 86.60 and 86.63)


Australia’s new multicultural policy includes a National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy, establishment of the Australian Multicultural Council, a ‘multicultural ambassadors’ program and a Multicultural Youth Sports Partnership Program.

Incorporate Australia’s international human rights obligations into Australian domestic law (recommendations 86.18 – 86.19).


The Australian Government incorporates international obligations into domestic law to the extent considered necessary, noting that some obligations are reflected in policy.

Develop a comprehensive poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy integrating economic, social and cultural rights (recommendations 86.32 and 86.33).


The Australian Government’s social inclusion agenda promotes economic, social and cultural rights, including by reducing disadvantage and increasing social, civic and economic participation.

Incorporate Australia’s international human rights obligations into domestic law through the adoption of a comprehensive Human Rights Act (recommendation 86.22).


The Australian Government considers that existing mechanisms, together with new requirements under Australia’s Human Rights Framework, provide for the protection and promotion of human rights. It does not intend to introduce a Human Rights Act.