The economic, social and cultural rights of older persons
(Thirteenth session, 1995)*
1. The world population is ageing at a steady, quite spectacular
rate. The total number of persons aged 60 and above rose from 200
million in 1950 to 400 million in 1982 and is projected to reach 600
million in the year 2001 and 1.2 billion by the year 2025, at which
time over 70 per cent of them will be living in what are today's
developing countries. The number of people aged 80 and above has grown
and continues to grow even more dramatically, going from 13 million in
1950 to over 50 million today and projected to increase to 137 million
in 2025. This is the fastest growing population group in the world,
projected to increase by a factor of 10 between 1950 and 2025, compared
with a factor of six for the group aged 60 and above and a factor of
little more than three for the total population. 1/
2. These figures are illustrations of a quiet revolution, but
one which has far-reaching and unpredictable consequences and which is
now affecting the social and economic structures of societies both at
the world level and at the country level, and will affect them even
more in future.
3. Most of the States parties to the Covenant, and the
industrialized countries in particular, are faced with the task of
adapting their social and economic policies to the ageing of their
populations, especially as regards social security. In the developing
countries, the absence or deficiencies of social security coverage are
being aggravated by the emigration of the younger members of the
population and the consequent weakening of the traditional role of the
family, the main support of older people.
2. Internationally endorsed policies in relation to older persons
4. In 1982 the World Assembly on Ageing adopted the Vienna
International Plan of Action on Ageing. This important document was
endorsed by the General Assembly and is a very useful guide, for it
details the measures that should be taken by Member States to safeguard
the rights of older persons within the context of the rights proclaimed
by the International Covenants on Human Rights. It contains 62
recommendations, many of which are of direct relevance to the Covenant.
5. In 1991 the General Assembly adopted the United Nations
Principles for Older Persons which, because of their programmatic
nature, is also an important document in the present context. 3/ It is divided into five sections which correlate closely to the rights recognized in the Covenant. "Independence"
includes access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing and health
care. To these basic rights are added the opportunity to remunerated
work and access to education and training. By "participation" is
meant that older persons should participate actively in the formulation
and implementation of policies that affect their well-being and share
their knowledge and skills with younger generations, and should be able
to form movements and associations. The section headed "care"
proclaims that older persons should benefit from family care, health
care and be able to enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms when
residing in a shelter, care or treatment facility. With regard to "self-fulfilment",
the Principles that older persons should pursue opportunities for the
full development of their potential through access to the educational,
cultural, spiritual and recreational resources of their societies.
Lastly, the section entitled "dignity" states that older persons
should be able to live in dignity and security and be free of
exploitation and physical or mental abuse, should be treated fairly,
regardless of age, gender, racial or ethnic background, disability,
financial situation or any other status, and be valued independently of
their economic contribution.
6. In 1992, the General Assembly adopted eight global targets on
ageing for the year 2001 and a brief guide for setting national
targets. In a number of important respects, these global targets serve
to reinforce the obligations of States parties to the Covenant. 4/
7. Also in 1992, and in commemoration of the tenth anniversary
of the adoption of the Vienna International Plan of Action by the
Conference on Ageing, the General Assembly adopted the Proclamation on
Ageing in which it urged support of national initiatives on ageing so
that older women are given adequate support for their largely
unrecognized contributions to society and older men are encouraged to
develop social, cultural and emotional capacities which they may have
been prevented from developing during breadwinning years; families are
supported in providing care and all family members encouraged to
cooperate in caregiving; and that international cooperation is expanded
in the context of the strategies for reaching the global targets on
ageing for the year 2001. It also proclaimed the year 1999 as the
International Year of Older Persons in recognition of humanity's
demographic "coming of age". 5/
8. The United Nations specialized agencies, especially the
International Labour Organization, have also given attention to the
problem of ageing in their respective fields of competence.
3. The rights of older persons in relation to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
12. This is not determinative of the matter, however, since the
prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of "other status" could be
interpreted as applying to age. The Committee notes that while it may
not yet be possible to conclude that discrimination on the grounds of
age is comprehensively prohibited by the Covenant, the range of matters
in relation to which such discrimination can be accepted is very
limited. Moreover, it must be emphasized that the unacceptableness of
discrimination against older persons is underlined in many
international policy documents and is confirmed in the legislation of
the vast majority of States. In the few areas in which discrimination
continues to be tolerated, such as in relation to mandatory retirement
ages or access to tertiary education, there is a clear trend towards
the elimination of such barriers. The Committee is of the view that
States parties should seek to expedite this trend to the greatest
13. Accordingly, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights is of the view that States parties to the Covenant are obligated
to pay particular attention to promoting and protecting the economic,
social and cultural rights of older persons. The Committee's own role
in this regard is rendered all the more important by the fact that,
unlike the case of other population groups such as women and children,
no comprehensive international convention yet exists in relation to the
rights of older persons and no binding supervisory arrangements attach
to the various sets of United Nations principles in this area.
14. By the end of its thirteenth session, the Committee and,
before that, its predecessor, the Sessional Working Group of
Governmental Experts, had examined 144 initial reports, 70 second
periodic reports and 20 initial and periodic global reports on articles
1 to 15. This examination made it possible to identify many of the
problems that may be encountered in implementing the Covenant in a
considerable number of States parties that represent all the regions of
the world and have different political, socio-economic and cultural
systems. The reports examined to date have not provided any information
in a systematic way on the situation of older persons with regard to
compliance with the Covenant, apart from information, of varying
completeness, on the implementation of article 9 relating to the right
to social security.
15. In 1993, the Committee devoted a day of general discussion
to this issue in order to plan its future activity in this area.
Moreover, it has, at recent sessions, begun to attach substantially
more importance to information on the rights of older persons and its
questioning has elicited some very valuable information in some
instances. Nevertheless, the Committee notes that the great majority of
States parties reports continue to make little reference to this
important issue. It therefore wishes to indicate that, in future, it
will insist that the situation of older persons in relation to each of
the rights recognized in the Covenant should be adequately addressed in
all reports. The remainder of this General Comment identifies the
specific issues which are relevant in this regard.
16. Older persons as a group are as heterogeneous and varied as
the rest of the population and their situation depends on a country's
economic and social situation, on demographic, environmental cultural
and employment factors and, at the individual level, on the family
situation, the level of education, the urban or rural environment and
the occupation of workers and retirees.
17. Side by side with older persons who are in good health and
whose financial situation is acceptable, there are many who do not have
adequate means of support, even in developed countries, and who feature
prominently among the most vulnerable, marginal and unprotected groups.
In times of recession and of restructuring of the economy, older
persons are particularly at risk. As the Committee has previously
stressed (General Comment No. 3 (1990), para. 12), even in times of
severe resource constraints, States parties have the duty to protect
the vulnerable members of society.
18. The methods that States parties use to fulfil the
obligations they have assumed under the Covenant in respect of older
persons will be basically the same as those for the fulfilment of other
obligations (see General Comment No. 1 (1989)). They include the need
to determine the nature and scope of problems within a State through
regular monitoring, the need to adopt properly designed policies and
programmes to meet requirements, the need to enact legislation when
necessary and to eliminate any discriminatory legislation and the need
to ensure the relevant budget support or, as appropriate, to request
international cooperation. In the latter connection, international
cooperation in accordance with articles 22 and 23 of the Covenant may
be a particularly important way of enabling some developing countries
to fulfil their obligations under the Covenant.
19. In this context, attention may be drawn to Global target No.
1, adopted by the General Assembly in 1992, which calls for the
establishment of national support infrastructures to promote policies
and programmes on ageing in national and international development
plans and programmes. In this regard, the Committee notes that one of
the United Nations Principles for Older Persons which Governments were
encouraged to incorporate into their national programmes is that older
persons should be able to form movements or associations of older
5. Specific provisions of the Covenant
20. In accordance with article 3 of the Covenant, by which States
parties undertake "to ensure the equal right of men and women to the
enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights", the Committee
considers that States parties should pay particular attention to older
women who, because they have spent all or part of their lives caring
for their families without engaging in a remunerated activity entitling
them to an old-age pension, and who are also not entitled to a widow's
pension, are often in critical situations.
21. To deal with such situations and comply fully with article 9
of the Covenant and paragraph 2 (h) of the Proclamation on Ageing,
States parties should institute non-contributory old-age benefits or
other assistance for all persons, regardless of their sex, who find
themselves without resources on attaining an age specified in national
legislation. Given their greater life expectancy and the fact that it
is more often they who have no contributory pensions, women would be
the principal beneficiaries.
22. Article 6 of the Covenant requires States parties to take
appropriate steps to safeguard the right of everyone to the opportunity
to gain a living by work which is freely chosen or accepted. In this
regard, the Committee, bearing in mind that older workers who have not
reached retirement age often encounter problems in finding and keeping
jobs, stresses the need for measures to prevent discrimination on
grounds of age in employment and occupation. 6/
23. The right "to the enjoyment of just and favourable
conditions of work" (Covenant, art. 7) is of special importance for
ensuring that older workers enjoy safe working conditions until their
retirement. In particular, it is desirable, to employ older workers in
circumstances in which the best use can be made of their experience and
24. In the years preceding retirement, retirement preparation
programmes should be implemented, with the participation of
representative organizations of employers and workers and other bodies
concerned, to prepare older workers to cope with their new situation.
Such programmes should, in particular, provide older workers with
information about: their rights and obligations as pensioners; the
opportunities and conditions for continuing an occupational activity or
undertaking voluntary work; means of combating detrimental effects of
ageing; facilities for adult education and cultural activities, and the
use of leisure time. 8/
25. The rights protected by article 8 of the Covenant, namely,
trade union rights, including after retirement age, must be applied to
26. Article 9 of the Covenant provides generally that States parties
"recognize the right of everyone to social security", without
specifying the type or level of protection to be guaranteed. However,
the term "social security" implicitly covers all the risks involved in
the loss of means of subsistence for reasons beyond a person's control.
27. In accordance with article 9 of the Covenant and the
provisions concerning implementation of the ILO social security
conventions - Convention No. 102 concerning Social Security (Minimum
Standards) (1952) and Convention No. 128 concerning Invalidity, Old-Age
and Survivors' Benefits (1967) - States parties must take appropriate
measures to establish general regimes of compulsory old-age insurance,
starting at a particular age, to be prescribed by national law.
28. In keeping with the recommendations contained in the two ILO
Conventions mentioned above and Recommendation No. 162, the Committee
invites States parties to establish retirement age so that it is
flexible, depending on the occupations performed and the working
ability of elderly persons, with due regard to demographic, economic
and social factors.
29. In order to give effect to the provisions of article 9 of
the Covenant, States parties must guarantee the provision of survivors'
and orphans' benefits on the death of the breadwinner who was covered
by social security or receiving a pension.
30. Furthermore, as already observed in paragraphs 20 and 21, in
order fully to implement the provisions of article 9 of the Covenant,
States parties should, within the limits of available resources,
provide non-contributory old-age benefits and other assistance for all
older persons, who, when reaching the age prescribed in national
legislation, have not completed a qualifying period of contribution and
are not entitled to an old-age pension or other social security benefit
or assistance and have no other source of income.
31. On the basis of article 10, paragraph 1, of the Covenant and
recommendations 25 and 29 of the Vienna International Plan of Action on
Ageing, States parties should make all the necessary efforts to
support, protect and strengthen the family and help it, in accordance
with each society's system of cultural values, to respond to the needs
of its dependent ageing members. Recommendation 29 encourages
Governments and non-governmental organizations to establish social
services to support the whole family when there are elderly people at
home and to implement measures especially for low-income families who
wish to keep elderly people at home. This assistance should also be
provided for persons living alone or elderly couples wishing to remain
32. Of the United Nations Principles for Older Persons, principle 1,
which stands at the beginning of the section relating to the
independence of older persons, provides that: "Older persons should
have access to adequate food, water, shelter, clothing and health care
through the provision of income, family and community support and
self-help". The Committee attaches great importance to this principle,
which demands for older persons the rights contained in article 11 of
33. Recommendations 19 to 24 of the Vienna International Plan of
Action on Ageing emphasize that housing for the elderly must be viewed
as more than mere shelter and that, in addition to the physical, it has
psychological and social significance which should be taken into
account. Accordingly, national policies should help elderly persons to
continue to live in their own homes as long as possible, through the
restoration, development and improvement of homes and their adaptation
to the ability of those persons to gain access to and use them
(recommendation 19). Recommendation 20 stresses the need for urban
rebuilding and development planning and law to pay special attention to
the problems of the ageing, assisting in securing their social
integration, while recommendation 22 draws attention to the need to
take account of the functional capacity of the elderly in order to
provide them with a better living environment and facilitate mobility
and communication through the provision of adequate means of transport.
Article 12: Right to physical and mental health
34. With a view to the realization of the right of elderly
persons to the enjoyment of a satisfactory standard of physical and
mental health, in accordance with article 12, paragraph 1, of the
Covenant, States parties should take account of the content of
recommendations 1 to 17 of the Vienna International Plan of Action on
Ageing, which focus entirely on providing guidelines on health policy
to preserve the health of the elderly and take a comprehensive view,
ranging from prevention and rehabilitation to the care of the
35. Clearly, the growing number of chronic, degenerative
diseases and the high hospitalization costs they involve cannot be
dealt with only by curative treatment. In this regard, States parties
should bear in mind that maintaining health into old age requires
investments during the entire life span, basically through the adoption
of healthy lifestyles (food, exercise, elimination of tobacco and
alcohol, etc.). Prevention, through regular checks suited to the needs
of the elderly, plays a decisive role, as does rehabilitation, by
maintaining the functional capacities of elderly persons, with a
resulting decrease in the cost of investments in health care and social
36. Article 13, paragraph 1, of the Covenant recognizes the right of
everyone to education. In the case of the elderly, this right must be
approached from two different and complementary points of view: (a) the
right of elderly persons to benefit from educational programmes; and
(b) making the know-how and experience of elderly persons available to
37. With regard to the former, States parties should take
account of: (a) the recommendations in principle 16 of the United
Nations Principles for Older Persons to the effect that older persons
should have access to suitable education programmes and training and
should, therefore, on the basis of their preparation, abilities and
motivation, be given access to the various levels of education through
the adoption of appropriate measures regarding literacy training,
life-long education, access to university, etc.; and (b) recommendation
47 of the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing, which, in
accordance with the concept of life-long education promulgated by the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO), recommends informal, community-based and recreation-oriented
programmes for the elderly in order to develop their sense of
self-reliance and the community's sense of responsibility. Such
programmes should enjoy the support of national Governments and
38. With regard to the use of the know-how and experience of
older persons, as referred to in the part of the recommendations of the
Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing dealing with education
(paras. 74-76), attention is drawn to the important role that elderly
and old persons still play in most societies as the transmitters of
information, knowledge, traditions and spiritual values and to the fact
that this important tradition should not be lost. Consequently, the
Committee attaches particular importance to the message contained in
recommendation 44 of the Plan: "Educational programmes featuring the
elderly as the teachers and transmitters of knowledge, culture and
spiritual values should be developed".
39. In article 15, paragraphs 1 (a) and (b), of the Covenant,
States parties recognize the right of everyone to take part in cultural
life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its
applications. In this respect, the Committee urges States parties to
take account of the recommendations contained in the United Nations
Principles for Older Persons, and in particular of principle 7: "Older
persons should remain integrated in society, participate actively in
the formulation and implementation of policies that directly affect
their well-being and share their knowledge and skills with younger
generations"; and principle 16: "Older persons should have access to
the educational, cultural, spiritual and recreational resources of
40. Similarly, recommendation 48 of the Vienna International
Plan of Action on Ageing encourages Governments and international
organizations to support programmes aimed at providing the elderly with
easier physical access to cultural institutions (museums, theatres,
concert halls, cinemas, etc.).
41. Recommendation 50 stresses the need for Governments,
non-governmental organizations and the ageing themselves to make
efforts to overcome negative stereotyped images of older persons as
suffering from physical and psychological disabilities, incapable of
functioning independently and having neither role nor status in
society. These efforts, in which the media and educational institutions
should also take part, are essential for achieving a society that
champions the full integration of the elderly.
42. With regard to the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific
progress and its applications, States parties should take account of
recommendations 60, 61 and 62 of the Vienna International Plan of
Action and make efforts to promote research on the biological, mental
and social aspects of ageing and ways of maintaining functional
capacities and preventing and delaying the start of chronic illnesses
and disabilities. In this connection, it is recommended that States,
intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations
should establish institutions specializing in the teaching of
gerontology, geriatrics and geriatric psychology in countries where
such institutions do not exist.
Aranguren, José Luis. La vejez como autorrealizacion personal y social. Ministerio Asuntos Sociales. Madrid, 1992.
Beauvoir, Simone de: La vieillese. Gallimard 1970 (Edhasa, 1983).
Cebrián Badia, Francisco Javier: La jubilación forzosa del
trabajador y su derecho al trabajo. Actualidad Laboral No. 14, Madrid,
Commission des Communautés Européennes: L'Europe dans le
mouvement démographique (Mandat du 21 juin 1989), Bruselas, junio de
Duran Heras, Almudena. Anticipo de la jubilación en España. Revista de Seguridad Social, No. 41, Madrid, 1989.
Fuentes, C. Josefa. Situación Social del Anciano. Alcalá de Henares, 1975.
Fundación Europea para la Mejora de las Condiciones de Vida y de
Trabajo. Informe Anual 1989, Luxemburgo. Oficina de las publicaciones
oficiales de las Comunidades Europeas, 1990.
Girard, Paulette. Vieillissement et emploi, vieillissement et
travail. Haut Conseil de la Population et de la Famille. Documentation
Guillemard, Anne Marie. Analisis de las politicas de vejez en Europa. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales. Madrid, 1992.
Guillemard, Anne Marie. Emploi, protection sociale et cycle
de vie: Résultat d'une comparaison internationale des dispositifs de
sortie anticipée d'activité. Sociologie du travail, No. 3, Paris, 1993.
H. Draus, Renate. Le troisième âge en la République fédérale
allemande. Observations et diagnostics économiques, No. 22, enero de
Hermanova, Hana. Envejecer con salud en Europa en los años 90 Jornadas Europeas sobre personas mayores. Alicante, 1993.
INSERSO (Instituto Nacional de Servicios Sociales). La Tercera
Edad en Europe: Necesidades y Demandas. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales,
INSERSO. La Tercera Edad en España: Necesidades y Demandas. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales, Madrid, 1990.
INSERSO. La Tercera Edad en España: Aspectos cuantitativos. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales, Madrid, 1989.
ISE (Instituto Sindical Europeo). Los jubilados en Europa Occidental: Desarrollo y Posiciones Sindicales, Bruselas, 1988.
Lansley, John y Pearson, Maggie. Preparación a la jubilación en
los países de la Comunidad Europea. Seminario celebrado en Francfort
del Main, 10 a 12 de octubre de 1988. Luxemburgo: Oficina de
Publicaciones Oficiales de las Comunidades Europeas, 1989.
Martínez-Fornes, Santiago, Envejecer en el año 2000. Editorial Popular, S.A. Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales, Madrid, 1991.
Minois, George. Historia de la vejez: De la Antigüedad al Renacimiento. Editorial Nerea, Madrid, 1989.
Ministerio de Trabajo. Seminario sobre Trabajadores de Edad Madura. Ministerio de Trabajo, Madrid, 1968.
OCDE. Flexibilité de l'âge de la retraite. OCDE, Paris, 1970.
OCDE. Indicadores Sociales. Informes OCDE. Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social, Madrid, 1985.
OCDE. El futuro de la protección social y el envejecimiento de
la población. Informes OCDE. Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social,
OIT. Trabajadores de Edad Madura: Trabajo y Jubilación. 65a.
Reunión de la Conferencia Internacional del Trabajo. Ginebra, 1965.
OIT. De la pirámide al pilar de población: los cambios en la
población y la seguridad social. Informes OIT. Ministerio de Trabajo y
Seguridad Social, Madrid, 1990.
OIT. La OIT y las personas de edad avanzada. Ginebra, 1992.
PNUD. Desarrollo Humano. Informe 1990. Tercer Mundo Editores, Bogotá, 1990.
Simposio de Gerontología de Castilla-León. Hacia una vejez
nueva. I Simposio de Gerontología de Castilla-León. 5 a 8 de mayo de
1988. Fundación Friedrich Ebert, Salamanca, 1988.
Uceda Povedano, Josefina. La jubilación: reflexiones en torno a
la edad de jubilación en la CEE: especial referencia al casa español.
Escuela Social, Madrid, 1988.
Vellas, Pierre. Législation sanitaire et les personnes agées. OMS, Publications régionales. Série européenne, No. 33.
2/ Report of the World Assembly on Ageing, Vienna, 26 July-6 August 1982; (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.82.I.16).
3/ General Assembly
resolution 46/91 of 16 December 1991, "Implementation of the
International Plan of Action on Ageing and related activities", annex.
4/ Global targets on ageing for the year 2001: a practical strategy (A/47/339), chapters III and IV.
5/ General Assembly resolution 47/5 of 16 October 1992, "Proclamation on Ageing".
6/ See ILO Recommendation 162 (1980) concerning Older Workers, paras. 3-10.
7/ Ibid., paras. 11-19.
8/ Ibid., para. 30.