Celebrating Human Rights Day?

So it’s Human Rights Day tomorrow. How will the UK be marking it?  Most likely it will pass unnoticed or derided as another manifestation of political correctness. Yet, surely having laws that protect the basic rights of everyone in the UK, including people at their most vulnerable, is something to be proud of? So why aren’t we celebrating?

Sadly, it is because we have allowed the myth that the Human Rights Act is nothing more than a rogue’s charter used by lawyers to protect the undeserving, to take hold.

We read misleading and inaccurate stories involving cats and immigration or burglars and fried chicken. What we read less about are those vulnerable older people in the UK who depend on the act to protect them or to  improve the  fundamental services on which they rely .

Dignity and respect are at the core of human rights. Unfortunately, older people are sometimes treated in a way far removed from this. What is most shocking is that this can happen when they are at their most susceptible, needing care in hospital, or even in their own homes.

You need only glance at the shocking findings uncovered by  the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s  recent inquiry into homecare for older people. It revealed major and widespread breaches of human rights ranging from physical and financial abuse, lack of help eating and drinking to scant regard for the  privacy and dignity of those being care for.

Or the Staffordshire hospital where solicitors acting for 119 families, argued that some patients, the majority of whom were older people, received such appalling care it amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment breaching human rights law.   This included people left sitting in their own faeces and left without pain medication. Although the hospital did not accept there had been human rights breaches, it paid out just under £1.4m to individuals and their families.

Or take the case of the couple who were about to be separated after 65 years together as the husband needed residential care but his wife was told by the local authority that she did not qualify. They successfully argued that the local authority had breached their human rights and the authority reversed its decision.

However the HRA is much more than a legal cosh to bash public bodies with when they fail. It actually gives them a positive duty to protect human rights providing a great basis for improving their services they provide and as such should be celebrated not feared.

We may think it is not necessary to have laws to make us treat people with respect and dignity. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. But, sadly, whilst some older people continue to be treated so badly, they continue to need the protection the Human Rights Act provides.

So next time someone claims that we don’t need it, perhaps, they just need to remember it protects everyone – including their mum, their grand-dad or, yes, even them. 

Read our guest blog to mark Human Rights Day

Read our feature about older people in Colombia

Find out more about our international work


Guest blog – Displacement in Colombia

This guest blog was contributed by Susi Taylor, Programme Director for Colombia, HelpAge International, to mark Human Rights Day on 10 December.

“We lived well there,” says Gregoria, a lively 68 year-old Afro-Colombian woman, who is telling me about her home. “I had nine children. I had my animals. I cultivated many kinds of fruit.  I only had to buy small things from the local town. I had everything else right there. We had our own water system, which we had constructed. That was a reason for their arrival [illegal armed groups] and why they didn’t want to go. The displacement was terrible. When we

Fanny works as a lawyer for the Peace & Wellbeing Foundation/ photo credit: Antonio Olmos/HelpAge International

arrived [in Cali]… I heard about the Fundación Paz y Bien (Peace and Wellbing Foundation) and the project with HelpAge. They advised me to present a claim for inclusion [as an IDP in the state register] and I am now registered as displaced. I enjoy the project meetings, because they guide us, teach us, share legal knowledge and we are learning to knit.  I can sing, embroider, and I like to write.”

Gregoria is just one of the millions of people, who have been forcibly displaced by the decades-long internal armed conflict in Colombia due to threats against their life and personal security, a basic universal human right. Gregoria is over 60 years of age, the group that makes up over 10% of internally displaced people (IDPs). Older people are affected by displacement differently from other age groups, because of their particular characteristics. They therefore need special protection. They are the most likely to resist displacement. Many have lived all their lives on the land as farmers, so they suffer greatly having to flee to cities like Cali where they are bewildered by their new urban surroundings and cannot use any of their agricultural skills to access employment. Their loss of status as family providers causes deep depression in many older IDPs, exacerbated by the daily violence of the inner city areas where they end up. Many older IDPs cannot read or write and do not know about what kind of help they can get when they’ve been displaced – for themselves and for their grandchildren, who are often left in their care.

Luckily for Gregoria and others, there are organizations like Fundación Paz y Bien which is based in Aguablanca, Cali, which provide services for the displaced when the state system is overwhelmed. HelpAge International has been supporting a dedicated team of local community workers at Paz y Bien for two years to provide legal advice to the recently displaced, so that they can register with the appropriate state services and receive the government’s aid package, as well as longer-term support to help them claim their rights and get back on their feet. Paz y Bien also provides much-needed psycho-social support for older IDPs and their grandchildren, a state service which is almost absent throughout the country.

Fundación Paz y Bien was founded by the dynamic Sister Alba Stella, a Human Rights Defender who, together with the women of the community, started work to tackle the many needs facing the district of Aguablanca. In collaboration with local state services, they provide a myriad of community-based support programmes, including shelter for pregnant teenagers who have difficulties with their families; refuge and support for youth at risk of recruitment by local delinquent gangs; a crèche and kindergarten for hundreds of children whose mothers have to work; a programme to train local women for domestic employment, so that they know their rights and duties; and the protection programme with a specific focus on older IDPs for response to the internally displaced population, which arrives mainly from the Southern Pacific Coast, one of the current hot spots of the internal armed conflict.

On this Human Rights Day, I would like to pay homage to Sister Alba Stella and her dedicated team of community members, who work tirelessly with the local people of their community to live free of fear and want, and to achieve a dignified standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, and that of their families, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Read our feature about older people in Colombia

Find out more about our international work

Find out more about what HelpAge International is doing to help older displaced people in Colombia