The Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund Program International Conference “World in Change” at the University of Latvia

Riga, Latvia

It has been over a decade since I last visited the University of Latvia on the occasion of the establishment of the Sylff Fellowship Fund. It is wonderful to be back on campus and to learn how the program has developed. I would like to convey my appreciation to Rector Marcis Auzins, members of the Sylff Steering Committee, Coordinator Ms. Alina Grzhibovska, and all Sylff fellows for your dedication to the program.

Since its founding, the mission of Sylff has been to nurture leaders who will contribute to the peace and well-being of all humankind. Here at the University of Latvia, I was very happy to hear that outstanding graduates have emerged from the Sylff program and are pursuing careers in their various specializations.

Today, I would like to share with you the lessons I’ve learned from my lifework.
About 40 years ago, before most of you fellows were even born, I visited a leprosy hospital in the Republic of Korea.

Leprosy is a disease that has been misunderstood and stigmatized throughout human history. Left untreated, it can cause external damage such as skin discoloration and deformities on the face, hands, and feet. When the cause was still unknown, the appearance of those affected by leprosy struck fear in people’s hearts and led many to believe that the disease was a curse or punishment from God. From the late 19th century, various countries around the world enforced isolation policies to prevent further infection. Many people were forced to be taken away from their families and banished to solitary islands or to remote locations. Latvia also had leprosy hospitals in Riga and Talsi. The people whom I met at the hospital in the Republic of Korea were no exception to this fate. They were removed from their communities, completely shut out from the world, stripped of their dignity, and living quietly in eternal banishment.

This was an experience that opened my eyes to a reality I had hitherto failed to see: the reality that there are people who have been marginalized and forgotten; people who have been unwillingly stripped of their rights and dignity; and people who have been silent out of shame and fear of discrimination. It was unbearable to think that many more people around the world were experiencing the same pain and hardship. I knew I had to do something but the question was: What?

The opportunity to improve the situation came in the 1980s with the advent of multi-drug therapy known as MDT. This effective treatment method made it possible to cure everyone suffering from this disease, and in 1991 this breakthrough emboldened the WHO to adopt a resolution to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem. The Nippon Foundation joined this global movement and took the initiative to provide MDT free of charge in every country. To our amazement, this effort led to the cure of 16 million people in two decades. I expected that needless segregation would end soon and that the stigma and discrimination toward leprosy would weaken and fade away. 

However, what I saw in various countries was something quite different. Although no longer confined, people were still living apart from the rest of society and prevented from doing the things that many of us take for granted, such as going to school, finding work, or using public transportation. 

Learning of this reality, I realized for the first time how shortsighted I had been to think that simply curing people of the disease could reclaim their stolen dignity and break down the invisible wall that separates people affected by leprosy from the rest of society.

This realization set me on a new path; and in 2003, I approached the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva to deliver the people’s silent cries to the world community. Over the next seven years, with the support of various organizations and individuals, we held countless awareness-raising campaigns and made repeated appeals to the international society; until finally, in 2010, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the resolution on the “Elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members.” The global fight against leprosy continues to this day.

So this has been my journey. I have also been involved in various other projects, but what I can say for all of them is that regardless of how meticulously a project is planned, things seldom go as planned. That is why I believe the key to overcoming these challenges is to have relentless determination to go through countless trial and error. As you go off on your endeavors, you will face your own sets of challenges. In those difficult times, I hope you will be the leaders who can take them on with this relentless determination.

In closing, I would like to wish all of you fellows further success in your future endeavors and also wish the University of Latvia many more fruitful years.

Thank you.