10th Forum 2000 Conference: “Global Co-existence”
As Ms. Robinson said in the morning session, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights.
But time and again on my travels, I have seen the reality of the world very different. People are denied their dignity and rights for all kinds of reasons. Equality is only a dream for many. Discrimination is widespread.
One of the oldest examples of discrimination relates to people with leprosy. Leprosy is a disease that has caused misery since antiquity. It is mentioned in Indian texts of 6th century B.C., in the Bible, and in ancient Chinese documents.
For thousands of years, it was thought to be highly contagious. The skin and nerve damage it caused often led to terrible deformity. Deformity inspired fear, leading those with the disease to be shunned. The world’s religions were unsympathetic, viewing people with leprosy as unclean. This reinforced the stigma attached to the disease. People with leprosy were regarded as social outcasts for many centuries.
In the 19th century, the leprosy bacillus was identified. However, at the time, there was no cure. The route of transmission remained a mystery. Laws were enacted to isolate patients from the rest of the population. In Japan, forcible sterilization was legalized. Forced abortion was common, too. The policy was not to cure patients but eradicate the disease by waiting for them to die.
In the past two decades, enormous progress was made medically. With the emergence of multidrug therapy, leprosy became curable. Close to 15 million people have been cured since 1980s. With early detection and early treatment, the probability of developing deformity is minimized.
But deep-rooted stigma and discrimination die hard.
Misperceptions about leprosy abound: it is “incurable;” its “hereditary,” it is “God’s punishment.” Based on such false notions, discrimination persists. It affects not only those with the disease and the cured persons, but their family members too.
By my calculation, dozens of millions of people are the victims of unjustified discrimination. It is a massive problem. Yet these people are largely invisible. Afraid of attracting further discrimination, many have hidden themselves and remained silent. When they have gained the courage to speak, they have been ignored.
In Asia, Africa and South America, there are numerous leprosy colonies where patients, the cured persons and their families live. Many survive by begging. They live trapped in a vicious cycle of discrimination, lack of opportunities and resulting poverty.
Three years ago, I decided to do something about this. I approached the UN Commission on Human Rights. Three years on, a crack of light has appeared. Professor Yokota, who is here today, has put this issue before the newly constituted UN Human Rights Council. He has proposed that it draw up basic principles and guidelines to redress this injustice.
This should abolish institutional discrimination. But what about changing our mindsets? What about eliminating our preconceptions? It is not easy. Even when we know the truth and we know our beliefs are false, we can not change our long-held perceptions.
In the case of leprosy, the physical walls separating people affected by leprosy are gradually coming down, but invisible walls still remain. We are unable even lower these walls down. We are still keeping these walls in our minds, in order to protect our safe and peaceful lives.
I believe that the roots of discrimination lie in our feelings of fear of those we perceive as different. This fear makes us build walls in our minds. How can we lower down such walls which separate us from the different other?
We must respect individual differences so that we can all live together.
We must regard every problem as our problem and our responsibility for all of us to solve them together. I look forward to lively discussion which will enable us to find as to which direction we should go.