Chicago law group pushes for elder rights

By Zachary Vasile

Guarantees for elderly people to make free choices about their employment and healthcare are high priorities for the Chicago Declaration of the Rights of Older Persons. Yesterday, members of the Chicago Declaration Working Group took the opportunity to present the new document and field questions from an audience of law students and legal experts at John Marshall Law School.

“The aim is to put the ideas and language forward to advance the process of a U.N. convention on the rights of older persons,” said Professor William Mock, one of the committee’s members.

The Chicago group -which consists of specialists drawn from John Marshall’s faculty- has been working to promote the rights of the elderly. Over the years, the U.N. has adopted numerous conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, aimed at protecting society’s most vulnerable. The struggles faced by the aging however, have not been as visible to the international body -it has not yet adopted any convention or treaty to protect the elderly.

“There’s a need for consciousness-raising,” Mock said. “There is no document that is focused on the rights of older persons.”

The new document demands protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender elders as well as “respect for individual autonomy, including the freedom to make one’s own choices.” Also included is a provision that seeks to hold private institutions to the same standard as nation-states. When pressed on this language from a member of the audience, Professor Sarah Dàvila-Ruhaak pointed to common law history.

“There’s a broad range of case law recognizing the duty of states to protect people within their countries, even from private individuals and private entities,” Dàvila-Ruhaak said.

The American population over the age of 60 will boom in the following years according to estimates by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The American population over the age of 60 will boom in the following years according to estimates by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The draft declaration, which was adopted by the John Marshall Law School in July, also enumerates a number of rights, including provisions for free participation in society and protection from forced retirement. Because it was designed for international implementation, the document does not define “older person” chronologically, in recognition that the precise definition of old age is often framed by culture. It makes no mention of physician- and/or family-assisted suicide.

“That’s on purpose,” said Mock. “We didn’t want someone to be against everything because of that one line.”

The group also warded off any suggestion that their work was redundant because the U.N. has already adopted a convention defending the disabled. Audience member Barry Kozak, an elder law specialist at John Marshall, asserted that the protections offered by the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities were not necessarily adequate to protect seniors.

“There is an intersection with disability law but the two have to be considered separately,” Kozak said.

“There are people who are elderly but not disabled, disabled but not elderly,” Mock added.

The conversation with the audience also brought up another possibility: even if the U.N. one day adopts a convention protecting the elderly, the United States may opt out. It has signed but not ratified a number of broadly popular treaties, including the Convention on Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Failure to ratify means that a party state, while still a signatory, does not adopt the conventions’ law as its own.

Still, the Chicago group remains optimistic. Professor Mark Wojcik noted that the U.N. had just recently adopted a resolution against anti-LGBT violence, signaling a renewed responsiveness to vulnerable populations.