A Human Rights Treaty Finally Recognizes the Right to Palliative Care

For years, international conventions have protected the rights of children, women, and people with disabilities—groups recognized as vulnerable to marginalization and human rights violations. Yet the rights of older persons, who are susceptible to the same violations, have been woefully neglected in the human rights framework. Finally, there’s a sign that this is beginning to change.

In late June, the Organization of American States released a resolution in which member countries adopted the Inter-American Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons. It was immediately signed by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, and completed in record time, with drafting efforts initiated in 2012 and final text approved in 2015.

The convention recognizes that older persons should enjoy all existing human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis, and is based on general principles including dignity, independence, proactivity, autonomy, and full and productive integration into society.

The resolution couldn’t be timelier. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have helped make the older population one of the most rapidly growing age groups in the world. Yet older persons are often denied access to health, social benefits, work, food, and housing. They bear a disproportionately large burden of chronic, life-limiting, and incurable illnesses, and they often experience severe, debilitating pain.

This is the first instrument of its kind to explicitly refer to palliative care. It requires countries to provide access to palliative care without discrimination, to prevent unnecessary suffering and futile procedures, and to appropriately manage problems related to the fear of death. It also mandates that countries establish procedures to enable older persons to indicate in advance their will and instructions with regard to health care interventions.

The convention defines palliative care as:

the active, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary care and treatment of patients whose illness is not responding to curative treatment or who are suffering avoidable pain, in order to improve their quality of life until the last day of their lives. Central to palliative care is control of pain, of other symptoms, and of the social, psychological, and spiritual problems of the older person. It includes the patient, their environment, and their family. It affirms life and considers death a normal process, neither hastening nor delaying it.

The resolution is not without its flaws, however. For instance, it does not address important legal aspects of palliative care, such as concerns related to inheritance laws and the future of the patient’s property, access to social benefits, patient confidentiality, and the care of children and grandchildren. These legal concerns are closely tied to emotional distress during end-of-life care, and addressing them is part of palliative care’s holistic approach.

The Inter-American Convention established a follow-up mechanism to monitor progress in implementing its provisions. Countries must submit periodic reports to a committee of experts, and people or NGOs may submit petitions concerning any violation of the convention’s provisions.

The convention will enter into force as soon as two signatory countries ratify it, which is expected to happen soon. Once it does, human rights advocates in Latin America will finally be able to rely on a legally binding instrument to demand accountability for the failure to respect older persons’ rights.

But the effects of the convention could reverberate even further, helping to interpret the human rights of older people elsewhere in the world. For example, it comes at a critical moment to influence the African Regional Human Rights System, which is currently in the process of considering a draft Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa. And it strengthens civil society’s long-standing call for a UN convention on older persons, which was repeatedly raised during this year’s sixth session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing.

We hope that the Inter-American Convention can set an important precedent for the drafting of other human rights instruments that include the right to palliative care. From the right to decide about end-of-life care, to relief from unnecessary suffering, to the need for adequately trained health professionals, palliative care is a human right the world must come to recognize. 

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I'm glad to see attention to this issue. The Laws need to honor a persons wishes.

Unfortunately it doesn't include the right of physician-assisted dying.

What's unfortunate about avoiding Medical Murder??

Great move! Time to spread it to the rest of the world

Pleased to see palliative care, attention to pain relief, end of life care (& inheritance rights) being recognised as an important way to go in order to ensure that aged persons' rights & needs are given 'right' & legal status in civil & civilised societies.

This is wonderful news Gabriela, thanks for letting us all know.

The Rights of the Older Persons are essential but will need to be contextualized per country

Help seniors

I did not see the US as a signatory. And, when is this going to expand to include VALID investigations and enforcement against abuse of elderly people?

Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Policy issues arises from the relationship among older people, quality of life and the family as people with serious illnesses are found across all demographic ages. The worrying development is that Older adults—one of the world’s fastest growing demographics—disproportionately face incurable illnesses and debilitating pain. There is urgent need to cater for the welfare of elderly. This should be, but not limited to support of their income earning projects as these are now the carers of their children and the children of their children as non economic performance renders their children jobless. Its not a joke, it might surprise you that one of the elderly employee 61 years of age who was supposed to retire, but had an option to retire at the age of 65 after giving a valid reason, had his reason as “I am an orphan my parents died I had not one to keep after me” This same man though the dictates of the time had to retire him, he soon was in agonizing pain spiritually, mentally, socially, politically, and bodily. Exclusion is the main cause of elderly illness. It is important that something urgent be put in place. As the President of Good People’s Movement in Zimbabwe, which I think you should support, financially, socially, in cash and in kind, I am registering a Non Governmental Organization to be called Groups for Africa, through which donation support for the Elderly and other Inclusion Programmes for Zimbabwe.

this is divine assignment.everyone need care for the aged irrespective of relationship.this is commanded in the scripture;

Seniors need our protection in their end of life days. Stop the suffering they need us to be compassionate and understanding

we all will get old one day and there is a need to do some thing about old people

The care of the elderly is something beautiful and wonderful contribution in response to some nice people who may have worked in the day on the country or community service is obligatory for every man help the big man in the age of moral and humanitarian aspects Azavta to divine laws

The elderly are a reflection to the young, what they can expect, in their future! Treat all people how you want to be treated!

The Sir Wilhelm Foundation

I think this is a very good initiative.I therefore enjoin all civil societies and NGOs that advocate the rights and well-being of older persons to sign this very important petition.

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