Helsinki AM 2024: An introduction to the theme of Human Rights

When examining the well-being and care of older people with a foreign background from ENIEC’s perspective, it is essential to recognize the central role of human rights in the background of our work. In Finland, human rights are discussed more and more actively, especially when assessing the daily life of older people and the use of services.

In Finland, work for human rights is focused on the Parliamentary Human Rights Centre. Since 2019, the Human Rights Centre has paid special attention to the rights of older people. Cooperation with the Human Rights Centre has increasingly supported our work in the ENIEC Finland team. Together we have organized discussions and written newspaper articles.

How are human rights realized in practice  in the everyday lives of foreign-born old people? This is the topic which we will be discussing together in March when the ENIEC family meets in Helsinki!

The roots and present of human rights
Human rights roots date back to ancient Greece. The need for human rights was emphasized especially after the Second World War and after the horrors of the Holocaust. This set the chain of events that led to the birth of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Declaration affirmed that certain fundamental rights are universal and belong to all people, regardless of age or background. Since then, conventions on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights have been drawn up with the support of United Nations. In addition, UN has concluded several human rights treaties focusing on different phenomena or groups of people. The Council of Europe has also drawn up a number of human rights treaties, the best-known are European Convention on Human Rights and European Charter of Social Rights.

These human rights treaties are used to guide and obligate their member states to take human rights into account in their own national legislation. It should be noted that not all of these agreements have been ratified by all EU member states.

Human rights – how to understand them

Human rights can be approached from many different perspectives. We can look at them through individual agreements, such as children’s, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples or social rights. Another way is to group rights according to their nature. The latter approach is particularly appropriate for ENIEC’s work, as the rights of older people are linked to many different agreements.

Human rights can be divided into three main categories:

1. Civil, Freedom and Political Rights
2. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
3. Right to an Adequate Standard of Living

The first group of civil, freedom and political rights refers to everyone’s right to life, liberty, expression of opinion, non-discrimination, self-determination, justice and much more. These rights are intertwined in many ways. For example, the right of an older person to dress in a way that corresponds to his or her habits falls within the scope of freedom of expression. Dress and other customs are also safeguarded by the right to cherish one’s own cultural tradition, language and religion.

The right to self-determination and the opportunity to participate in one’s own life choices are also significantly linked to the everyday life of older people, especially when they do not know the local language well enough or know the service system. Self-determination should be emphasized when the older person needs services or long-term care. Even a lack of drinking water could, for example, violate an older person’s right to life. Racism in service faced by older people also violates the fundamental right to non-discrimination.

The second category of rights is relevant to ENIEC’s work. Economic, social and cultural rights relate to the livelihood, social security and health of older people. This means that when help is needed, it must be guaranteed. Unfortunately, access to services is often hampered if older people do not know how to use digital technology or do not understand how the service system works. In addition, low incomes can force older people to choose between food and medicine. Therefore, from the point of view of human rights, it is paramount to ensure poverty reduction and to provide effective health and social services that respect the needs and starting points of older people.

Economic, social and cultural rights are areas where people with a foreign background may be excluded from adequate protection due to the operating methods of organizations. In Finland, the service system still reaches and serves older persons belonging to minorities poorly.

The third level of human rights relates to climate change. Global warming increasingly causes extreme weather events, such as heat waves which can be particularly fatal to older people.

Monitoring the rights of the elderly

The realization of the rights of older people is monitored by Claudia Mahler, an independent expert from Austria, working in connection with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Finland was the first Nordic country Mahler visited in 2021. ENIEC members Susanna Lehtovaara and Eva Rönkkö handed Mahler a report on the situation of foreign-born old people in Finland. The report on the realization of the rights of older people was completed in autumn 2022 and was submitted to the Finnish Government.

Digitalization, rights of minorities and level of care highlighted

The report highlighted a number of concerns: digitalization, the adequate level of care, self-determination, participation in decision-making, the social position of older people belonging to minorities and discrimination. The narrow perspectives of data collection and research also pose challenges to the realization of human rights.
Through Human Rights, examining the everyday issues of foreign-born older people links our work better to both national and international legislation and obligations. Human Rights provide strong foundation and backing for our work at ENIEC.

Human Rights are not self-evident. There are no achieved gains. Progress can also go backwards. Protecting human rights requires understanding and defending them – not only in conflicts but also in the everyday lives of vulnerable people.