War; Older People at Heightened Risk of Abuse

As Russia launched a major invasion of Ukraine, reports of people leaving major cities to safer places are coming out. Well, the young might flee the country but the older people are struck in the conflict and left alone without family or their wider community. In this instance, a report from the Human Rights Watch on older people during times of conflict and armed rebellion gains significance.

The report “No One Is Spared: Abuses against Older People in Armed Conflict, states that oder people are often at heightened risk of abuses during armed conflict and all parties to armed conflict should end abuses against older people and facilitate humanitarian assistance to older people in need, according to a report of the Human Rights Watch.

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, it said.

The Human Rights Watch came out with report after documenting abuses from 2013 to 2021 in 15 countries. They found that older people experience the same abuses during armed conflict and other large-scale violence as younger people and in some circumstances face heightened risk related to their older age.

Senior researcher on the rights of older people at Human Rights Watch Bridget Sleap noted that older people faced serious abuses, including summary execution, rape, and abduction, during conflicts. “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,” the researcher said.


The report notes that government armed forces and non-state armed groups have unlawfully attacked and killed older civilians and subjected them to summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other ill-treatment, rape, abduction and kidnapping, and destruction of their homes and other 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, it added.

For instance, the report mentions that in Burkina Faso and Mali, armed Islamist groups, government forces, and ethnic militias have killed numerous older people, including prominent elders. Another instance the Human Rights Watch reports is from South Sudan, where a 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.


The Human Rights Watch says that 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,” a woman is quoted in the report. “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.”

The report states that older people chose not to flee their homes as 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. The report has the story of an old woman and her husband, both in their 70s, remaining 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.


Older people who are displaced can also face abuse and barriers to obtaining humanitarian assistance. In South Sudan in 2017, a 70-year-old man who was blind sis quoted in the report as saying that 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.”

“While older people are protected by international humanitarian law and international human rights law during armed conflict, in practice their needs and protections are often disregarded by the parties to the conflict. Governments, non-state armed groups, peacekeeping missions and the relevant United Nations agencies should do more to ensure adequate recognition and protection of older people from abuse during conflict,” the report said.

The Human Rights Watch stresses that older people require special attention by UN agencies and peacekeeping missions, aid organizations, governments, and others who have the ability to aid and offer protection to people in conflict situations and in humanitarian responses to older people displaced by conflict.


This report describes patterns of abuses against older people affected by armed conflict in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. It also draws on the situation of 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. It also includes abuses against older people in the 2020 armed conflict in the ethnic-Armenian-majority enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.


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