60th Session of UN Human Rights Commission

Geneva, Switzerland

Mr. Chairperson, I am here to talk to you about leprosy and human rights. If left untreated, leprosy results in serious deformity. Therefore, through the ages, it has triggered fear and loathing. Patients have been isolated. Isolation led to discrimination. Discrimination turned people into pariahs.

Once affected, a person was fated to a lifetime more miserable than death.

Families were terrified of the shame if a member developed leprosy. They kept the leprosy-affected hidden from view. Or they simply abandoned them.

Today, leprosy is treatable. Since the early 1980s, 12 million people have been cured. 116 countries have seen the disease eliminated as a medical issue. Today, there are less than 600,000 known cases.

But, Mr. Chairperson, a problem remains. Discrimination is still rampant. Those cured of leprosy still can’t marry. They can’t get work. They can’t go to school. They are still treated as outcasts. The problem is massive, global in scale.

Many still think leprosy is dangerous or hereditary. Many still see it as a divine punishment. And so millions live in isolation. They have no homes to return to. They are dead to their families.

As WHO goodwill ambassador for leprosy elimination, I spent 125 days last year travelling to 27 countries. I have seen this damage with my own eyes.

So Mr. Chairperson, why has this never been treated as a human rights issue? This is because these are abandoned people. They have had both their names and their identity stripped away. They cannot cry out for their rights. They are silenced people.

That is why I stand before you today. To draw your attention to these voiceless people.

Mr. Chairperson, leprosy is a human rights issue. I urge the members of this commission to rectify this problem. Develop a resolution. Support worldwide research. And create guidelines that guarantee freedom from discrimination for all affected by leprosy.

Thank you.