2nd International Symposium on Leprosy and Human Rights

India International Center, New Delhi

Ladies and Gentlemen. It is a pleasure to welcome representatives from governments, the United Nations and other International Organizations, as well as human rights specialists, NGOs and leaders of people affected by leprosy. I am also very grateful to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and His Holiness the Dalai Lama for their very encouraging video messages we saw earlier.

As you know, leprosy is a disease as old as human history. Its disfiguring effects have struck fear in people’s hearts. It has been seen as a curse or a punishment for sins committed in a past life. Those affected by the disease and their families have been subjected to fierce discrimination.

Today, leprosy is curable. Sixteen million people have been cured since the introduction of multidrug therapy in the 1980s. Nevertheless, discriminatory laws, institutions and attitudes remain. In my travels, I have met countless people affected by leprosy whose human right to live in dignity has been denied.

“Worse than the disease is the discrimination.” These are the words of those countless numbers of people whom I met around the world. Their silent cries for help weighed heavily on my heart, and prompted me to approach the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2003. I wanted to draw attention to the severe difficulties that people affected by leprosy face.

With whole hearted support from the member countries, seven years later, in December 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution on the “Elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members.” The resolution was accompanied by principles and guidelines. This is the reason why we are here today.

The principles and guidelines set out specific measures to be taken by governments and other stakeholders in order to eliminate discrimination. In reality, people affected by leprosy are still forced to live behind the walls of discrimination that have been built by society’s misperceptions. Now, we have this powerful new tool to tear down the walls. But it will not be enough to just have the tools in our possession. The walls will not crumble unless the tools are put to good use.
Using the principles and guidelines, therefore, the first task must be to review whether any laws that discriminate against people affected by leprosy still exist. If any are found, states are requested either to amend or abolish them immediately.

But even if they are abolished, deeply ingrained customs and practices will not disappear overnight. Taking this into account, the second action is for all stakeholders to conduct campaigns and other programs to raise public awareness.

Another important action is to provide support to people affected by leprosy and their families may improve their standard of living.

I plan to hold a total of five symposiums in different regions of the world to call attention to the principles and guidelines and request that governments, international organizations, NGOs, and organizations of people affected by leprosy put them to good use.

The first symposium in the series was held in Brazil in February. There were some productive discussions and participants offered many ideas and recommendations.

If we are truly to eliminate discrimination, however, it is imperative that all stakeholders play their part. And I hope that this Symposium in India will be an occasion in which we can further develop the sense of shared responsibility.

As an NGO that supports people affected by leprosy in various ways, I would like to share what we, The Nippon Foundation, are doing here in India.

As we believe in the importance of self-empowerment, we wanted to create a platform from which people affected by leprosy could speak out for their rights. Therefore, we helped to establish the National Forum in India; a national network association of people affected by leprosy.

In order to set people affected by leprosy on the path toward self-sustaining lives, we helped to set up the Sasakawa-India Leprosy Foundation. It runs vocational training and micro-financing programs for those who have been cured of leprosy.

But for there to be truly far-reaching changes, we need all stakeholdersto get involved.

Therefore, I would like to ask governments to draw up a concrete plan for abolishing legal and institutional forms of discrimination as well as discriminatory customs and practices. I would like to ask legal experts to support this undertaking from a legal standpoint. To those in the media, and to opinion leaders, I would like to ask that you disseminate information that will help correct society’s misperceptions about leprosy.

This symposium is to help us move in the right direction. I hope your discussions will set in motion a process to solve the problems of discrimination that people affected by leprosy still face. If, as a result of these discussions, it becomes clear that a detailed study of human rights violations against people with leprosy is needed, The Nippon Foundation is prepared to support this initiative.

Someone once said: “The walls around this leprosarium are only 20cm thick, but they hold out an entire world.”

Few people live in leprosy sanatoria today, but that does not mean the walls that separate many people affected by leprosy from society have disappeared. Invisible walls of discrimination are still standing. We have a duty to bring these walls down. We have the tools to do the job. These are the principles and guidelines. Let us all work together and do our part to break down the invisible walls of discrimination.

Thank you.