Global: Older people at heightened risk in conflict
Governments and the UN should do more to end abuses, provide protection and provide assistance
(New York) – Older people are often at heightened risk of abuse during armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. All parties to armed conflict must end abuses against older persons and facilitate humanitarian assistance to older persons in need. The UN Security Council should ensure that the UN addresses the need for enhanced protection of older civilians in armed conflict in its work.
The 49-page report, “No One Spared: Abuse of Older Persons in Armed Conflict,” describes patterns of abuse documented by Human Rights Watch between 2013 and 2021 against older persons affected by armed conflict in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, mali, mozambique, Nagorno-Karabakh, Niger, south sudan, Syriaand Ukraine. The report also draws on the serious prolonged violence in two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, Burma atrocities by security forces against elderly Rohingya in Rakhine State, and the experiences of elderly refugees in Lebanon displaced by the conflict in Syria.
“Older people face serious abuses, including summary executions, rape and kidnapping, during conflict,” said Brigitte Sleap, senior researcher on the rights of older persons at Human Rights Watch. “There is an urgent need for governments and the UN to recognize the specific risks and support needs of older people and act to protect them.”
Government forces and non-state armed groups have attacked and committed serious abuses against elderly civilians in conflicts around the world, including unlawful killings, summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and executions. ill-treatment, rapes, kidnappings and abductions, and destroyed their homes and property. Older civilians have been killed and injured by small arms, heavy weapons, long-range explosive weapons, chemical weapons and other prohibited weapons. Older people are often at increased risk when they cannot or choose not to flee attacks.
In Burkina Faso and in Mali, armed Islamist groups, government forces and ethnic militias have killed scores of elderly people, including prominent elders. On January 27, 2022, the Malian army executed two octogenarians and 12 others in the village of Touna, Mali, in apparent retaliation for the deaths of two soldiers whose vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device.
In South Sudan, a rape survivor in her late fifties said that during government operations against rebel forces in February 2019, a soldier made her carry looted goods, beat her with a gun and repeatedly raped her.
Between December 2016 and April 2017, Syrian government fighter jets carried out four aerial attacks with apparent nerve agents, a group of chemicals that includes sarin. Elderly people were among those believed to have died in the attacks from exposure to chemicals.
During hostilities, in many cases elderly people with reduced mobility or other disabilities did not have the support of others to flee as the fighting approached and had to stay behind. In 2017, Rohingya who were driven out of Myanmar described security forces pushing back elderly people who could not flee back to the burning houses. “I saw them push my husband’s uncle into the fire. I saw them push him back into the burning house,” one woman said. “He’s weak, maybe 80 years old. [old]…. I think they wanted everyone to leave and those who couldn’t leave, they set them on fire.
Other older people chose not to flee their homes because they wanted protect their property. During the 2020 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, most young civilians fled. Those who remained, with few exceptions, were elderly people. An elderly woman and her husband, Arega and Edward, both in their seventies, remained in their village to protect their property. In October, Azerbaijani soldiers found the couple in their home and detained them aggressively, first holding them in abandoned houses without food or water, then taking them to a detention center in Baku, the capital of the country. Azerbaijan. Authorities refused Arega’s medication for her high blood pressure. Eduard died in custody. When Arega saw her body shortly after her death, she described her face as black and blue.
Displaced older people may also face abuse and barriers to obtaining humanitarian assistance. In South Sudan in 2017, a 70-year-old man who was blind said help was unavailable on the island where he was moved. “Some organizations have registered elderly people, but I was never registered because they didn’t come to this particular island,” he said. “There is also no dispensary on the island. To get medical assistance, I have to go to another island or to the mainland.
International humanitarian law, the laws of war, recognizes the protection of older civilians during armed conflict. It requires, to the extent possible, the safe removal of elderly civilians, among others, from the vicinity of military targets, and the provision of adequate accommodation for civilians detained on the basis of age, among others factors. Older persons are also protected at all times by applicable international human rights law.
“UN agencies, peacekeeping missions and humanitarian actors must ensure that all protection and assistance activities are inclusive of older people and their specific needs,” Sleap said. “Older persons, with their unique protection needs, should no longer be invisible victims of armed conflict.