Lawyers Fight to End Discrimination

The Chairman of the Nippon Foundation, Yohei Sasakawa, has called for the abolition of laws that discriminate against leprosy-affected people. Sasakawa is WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Japan’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy.

Speaking at the eighth Global Appeal event to end the stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy, held at the Law Society in London three days before the sixtieth anniversary of World Leprosy Day, Sasakawa described leprosy as “one of the world’s most misunderstood and stigmatising diseases” and said that, “Even today, when leprosy is now completely curable, people with the disease continue to face discrimination. In some parts of the world, it is still difficult for people with leprosy to remain married or travel freely.”

“Helping to perpetuate this discrimination are various existing laws and regulations. It may be that these laws were not deliberately kept up, but have remained on the statute books – largely forgotten.”

“These discredited laws serve to fan the flames of prejudice and discrimination,” added Sasakawa.

Sasakawa welcomed the support for this year’s Global Appeal of the International Bar Association (IBA), the world’s leading organization of international legal practitioners, bar associations, and law societies. The IBA will reinforce the United Nations General Assembly resolution of 2010, which adopted principles and guidelines on eliminating leprosy-related discrimination. This year, 46 law associations from 41 countries have endorsed the Global Appeal through the IBA.

Akira Kawamura, former president of the IBA, stated: “There is no longer room for excuses. You and I and the legal profession can work together to fix this problem today.” He said that the IBA will work to eliminate discriminatory laws and ensure that the human rights of persons affected by leprosy are upheld in accordance with the principles enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A keynote speaker at the Global Appeal, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, co-chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, which works to promote, protect, and enforce human rights under the just rule of law, mentioned India as a country where there are discriminatory laws against leprosy-affected people. “Lawyers are key players in supporting meaningful legal reforms,” she said, adding that, “we can be the voice of the voiceless.” Singapore, Nepal, Malta, and Thailand are other countries where such legislation is still on the statute books. On immigration, the United States, China, and other countries refer to leprosy as a reason for declining entry.

Two leprosy-affected people from India, Vagavathali Narsappa and Guntreddy Venugopal of the National Forum India of people affected by leprosy, spoke at the Global Appeal of their work in India’s 850 self-settled colonies where thousands of leprosy-affected people live. India, however, achieved the World Health Organisation’s elimination target of less than one case per 10,000 people in 2005 as a sign that leprosy is no longer a public health problem. Only Brazil has not yet reached this figure.

Vagavathali Narsappa, chairman of the National Forum India, said that the “ultimate aim, for our country India, and the wider community, is a world with no leprosy and no discrimination against people affected by leprosy. If the IBA can help us change discriminatory laws, a huge step forward will have been made.”

Notes to editors

  1. Feared since biblical times as a contagious and incurable disease, leprosy underwent a transformation in the early 1980s with the development of an effective treatment. Since then, largely through the work of the WHO, the governments of leprosy-endemic nations, and international and local NGOs, some 16 million people have been cured of the disease worldwide. Today, the number of new cases reported worldwide is below 250,000 a year. While medical efforts to conquer leprosy have made tremendous progress, efforts to tackle the disease’s social aspects have lagged far behind. Due to ignorance, misunderstanding, indifference, or fear, millions of people cured of leprosy, and even their families, still suffer from the stigma associated with the disease.

  2. Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, launched the first Global Appeal in January 2006, with 12 world leaders including then President Lula de Silva of Brazil and former Presidents Ramaswami Venkataraman (India), Mary Robinson (Ireland), Oscar Arias (Costa Rica), and Jimmy Carter (United States). The following year, the Global Appeal was endorsed by 16 leaders from communities affected by leprosy.  In January 2008, in London, the Appeal was supported by organizations specializing in human rights and disability issues. In 2009, signatories were faith leaders including Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, the chief rabbi of Israel, and the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care at the Vatican. The year 2010 included international business leaders, followed by leading figures from academia in 2011, and this year, members of the World Medical Association.

  3. Yohei Sasakawa places his highest priority on visiting endemic countries and devotes considerable time to meeting with political leaders, medical personnel, NGO representatives, and people affected by leprosy. He has served as WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination since 2001, and has also been appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy by the Government of Japan. Sasakawa joined the Nippon Foundation as a trustee in 1981, served as president from 1989 and became chairman on 1 July 2005.

  4. The Nippon Foundation’s overall objectives include assistance for humanitarian activities, both at home and abroad, and global maritime development. For over 30 years, the Nippon Foundation has been involved with the global campaign to eliminate leprosy working with the WHO, governments, international organizations, and NGOs. One example of this work is the funding between 1995 and 1999 of free multi-drug therapy (MDT) for every leprosy-affected person in the world.

  5. Established in 1947, the International Bar Association (IBA)—“the global voice of the legal profession”—is the world’s leading organization of international legal practitioners, bar associations and law societies. Through its global membership, it influences the development of international law reform and shapes the future of the legal profession throughout the world.

Click here to see the Global Appeal page of the Nippon Foundation