Interview with the German Institute for Human Rights.

German Institute for Human Rights

Polina Aronson, Policy Adviser
  • Can you tell us a bit about the German Institute for Human Rights and the staff involved in ENNHRI’s Older Persons project?

The GIHR is an independent A-accredited National Human Rights Institution, founded in
2001. The Institute promotes the integration of human rights into domestic and foreign policy decisions and monitors the implementation of international and European human rights treaties in Germany. Its tasks include providing policy advice, applied research on human rights issues, human rights education, dialogue and co-operation with national and international organizations, documentation and information. Since 2009, the Institute has also been in charge of monitoring the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Since 2015, the Institute has received the mandate of monitoring the implantation of the UN Convention of Children (CRC). Nevertheless, the GIHR is not an ombudsman institution and has no mandate to deal with individual complains on human rights violations.

In 2006 the institute started its work in the field of care. The project on Human Rights of Older Persons in care is carried out by Dr. Claudia Mahler and Dr. Polina Aronson. Claudia Mahler is a Senior Policy Researcher specializing in economic, social and cultural rights. Dr. Mahler is an author of numerous publications on human rights of older persons, including the Policy Paper on human rights in long-term care published by the Institute in 2015. Polina Aronson is a sociologist with a strong background in sociology of health and in qualitative methods. Her previous work focused on utilization of healthcare services in Germany´s migrant populations.

  • How and why did it get involved in ENNHRI’s Older Persons project?

The Institute has history of long-standing and productive collaboration with ENNHRI working Groups on CRPD, Asylum and Migration and Social and Economic Rights. Although no separate Working Group on the rights of older persons has been within ENNHRI founded so far, the ENNHRI and the institute have already collaborated in order to draw up statements addressed to the UN Working Group on Ageing.

Participation in the ENNHRI project has also been dictated by German domestic interests. With demographic change becoming more and more pressing in Germany, rights of older persons are an important item on the Institute’s agenda. About twenty percent of the German population is now over 65 years old. This demographic development means new challenges to the national system of professional nursing care or, in German, Pflege (care). In particular, it is imperative that LTC residents are treated as rights holders and not just as objects of ministration. To achieve this goal, a profound reform of care provision has been carried out by the German government throughout the last few years. Participation in ENNHRI project permits us to study the implementation of this reform and analyse its first results in a broader, cross-national setting. We also see collaboration with ENNHRI as a platform to promote older persons’ human rights and raise awareness about the necessity of a binding legal instrument, protecting the elderly as a specific vulnerable group (as it is the case with CRPD , for example).

  • What are the main human rights issues in/facing the long-term care sector in Germany?

We believe that three problems are of particular importance at the moment. First, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive and legally binding mechanism on protection of rights of older persons. At the moment, although many actors in care – in particular, managers – have an intuitive understanding of older persons’ human rights, the knowledge what rights are relevant to care residents and how they need to be upheld, is too fragmented. In particular, care residents themselves very little idea about ways to stand up for their rights: many people are too shy to file complaints or, in other cases, have no information about Advance Health Care Directive. We believe that a binding convention on Older Persons’ Human Rights could serve as a reliable framework for all actors. The second hurdle to implementation of human rights in long-term care, is the precarious situation of care workers. Low income, poorly regulated contracts and a very high ration of residents per person lead to frustration, demotivation and rotation of personnel. In worst case, they also lead to abuse and neglect of elderly. Thus, in order to protect the rights of LTC residents, we need to start protecting rights of care workers better, for example, by levelling their salaries and qualifications with other care professions. Finally, the German LTC sector suffers from a lack of sufficient and sustainable complaint management system. Our study demonstrates most complaints in the LTC sector are dealt with internally and on ad hoc principle. Whereas for homes with strong management and well-qualified personnel this strategy might be sufficient, it can lead to significant problems in LTC organizations with weaker organizational structure. Therefore, we recommend that a sustainable low-threshold system of complaint management mechanisms should be established and granted a mandate to file legal cases. Otherwise, access to justice may remain infringed to all actors in LTC sector, from elderly residents to their relatives to care workers.

  • Why is the Project important to you personally?

This Project allowed us to approach the care sector from the inside and to look at the structures which facilitate or, on the contrary, hinder the implementation of human rights. It is the first time the Institute has been able to gather a bulk of empirical material about the German LTC sector, and being a part of this research is also an important step in our professional development, both for Claudia Mahler as a lawyer, and for Polina Aronson as a social scientist.

  • What is the most interesting thing about the Project?

The most interesting part of the project was to see that in spite of its poor reputation in Germany, the care sector is developing rapidly, and that it is full of highly motivated and creative people who believe in fairness and in primacy of human dignity. It was a real pleasure to meet LTC managers who went great lengths in order to provide their residents not only with a piece of bread and a place to sleep, but also with a sense of community. For example, one of the Homes we have visited took part in a project launched by two food journalists who travelled across German care homes in order to ask older people about their favourite recipes and to cook together with them. This one Home took part in a big marmalade cook-out, and recipes contributed by its residents were published in a big cookbook which, for a few weeks, was one of the German Amazon bestsellers. All in all, it was a revelation to see that geriatric care needn’t be a sad and boring business – it can also be emotional, exciting and very involving if people’s interests and their dignity come first.

German Institute for Human Rights