(New York) – Older people are often at heightened risk of abuses during armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. All parties to armed conflict should end abuses against older people and facilitate humanitarian assistance to older people in need. The United Nations 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 Is Spared: Abuses against Older People in Armed Conflict,” describes patterns of abuses documented by Human Rights Watch between 2013 and 2021 against older people affected by armed conflicts in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Mali, Mozambique, Nagorno-Karabakh, Niger, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. The report also draws on the serious protracted violence in two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, Myanmar security force atrocities against older ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, and the experiences of older refugees in Lebanon displaced by conflict in Syria.
“Older people face serious abuses, including summary execution, rape, and abduction, during conflicts,” said Bridget Sleap, senior researcher on the rights of older people at Human Rights Watch. “There is an urgent need for governments and the UN to recognize the specific risks and assistance needs of older people and act to protect them.”
Government forces and non-state armed groups have attacked and committed serious abuses against older civilians in conflicts around the world, including unlawful killing, summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, rape, abduction and kidnapping, and destroyed their homes and property. Older civilians have been killed and injured by small arms, heavy weapons, explosive weapons with wide area effects, and chemical and other banned weapons. Older people are often at heightened risk when they are unable or chose not to flee attacks.
In Burkina Faso and Mali, armed Islamist groups, government forces, and ethnic militias have killed numerous older people, including prominent elders. On January 27, 2022, the Malian army executed two men in their 80s and 12 others in the village of Touna, Mali, in apparent retaliation for the death of two soldiers whose vehicle drove over an improvised explosive device.
In South Sudan, a rape survivor in her late 50s said that during government operations against rebel forces in February 2019, a soldier made her carry looted property, beat her with a gun, and raped her repeatedly.
Between December 2016 and April 2017, Syrian government warplanes carried out four aerial attacks with apparent nerve agents, a group of chemicals that includes sarin. Older people were among those who reportedly died in the attacks from chemical exposure.
During hostilities, in many instances older people with limited mobility or other disabilities did not have support from others to flee when fighting neared and had to remain behind. In 2017, Rohingya who were forced out of Myanmar described security forces pushing older people who could not flee back into 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 is weak, maybe 80 years [old].... I think they wanted everyone to leave and those that could not leave they put into the fire.”
Other older people chose not to flee their homes because they wanted to protect their property. During the conflict in 2020 over Nagorno-Karabakh, the ethnic-Armenian majority enclave in Azerbaijan, most younger civilians fled. Those remaining, with few exceptions, were older people. An older woman and her husband, Arega and Eduard, both in their 70s, remained in their village to protect their property. In October, Azerbaijani soldiers found the couple at home and aggressively detained them, holding them initially in abandoned houses without food and water, then taking them to a detention facility in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Officials denied Arega medication for her high blood pressure. Eduard died in detention. When Arega viewed his body shortly after his death, she described his face as black and blue.
Displaced older people can also face abuse and barriers to obtaining humanitarian assistance. In South Sudan in 2017, a 70-year-old man who was blind said aid was inaccessible on the island to which he was displaced. “Some organizations have registered older people, but I never got registered because they did not come to this particular island,” he said. “There’s no health clinic either on the island. To get medical assistance, I must travel 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 feasible the safe removal of older civilians, among others, from the vicinity of military targets, and the provision of suitable accommodations for detained civilians on the basis of age among other factors. Older people are also protected at all times by applicable international human rights law.
“UN agencies, peacekeeping missions, and humanitarian actors should ensure that all protection and assistance activities are inclusive of older people and their specific needs,” Sleap said. “Older people, with their unique protection needs, should no longer be invisible victims of armed conflict.”