IBA Rule of Law Award at the Tokyo Annual Conference of the International Bar Association

Tokyo, Japan

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the International Bar Association for presenting me with this award. It is truly a privilege and a great honor.

Prime Minister Abe mentioned in his opening remarks, “the concept of the ‘rule of law’ is universal” and that “it is imbued with a deep love of humanity.” Hearing these words, I am ever more humbled to receive the Rule of Law Award from the International Bar Association as one of many individuals who have been advocating the same cause. It has given me an even greater sense of responsibility to fulfill the obligations of what this award signifies.

It is a pleasure to see President Michael J Reynolds and other delegates of the IBA here in Tokyo. Our last meeting was in London, on January 2013, when the IBA and The Nippon Foundation launched the 8th Annual Global Appeal to End Stigma and Discrimination against People Affected by Leprosy.

At that meeting, our two organizations pledged to work together to draw attention to the existence of laws that discriminate on the grounds of leprosy. We also pledged to lobby governments around the world to repeal such laws to ensure that the human rights of people affected by leprosy are upheld in accordance with the principles enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I cannot emphasize enough how meaningful the endorsement of the IBA—as the global voice of the legal profession—has been for everyone involved in the global fight against leprosy.

Leprosy has been one of the most misunderstood and stigmatizing diseases known to humankind. Left untreated, it can cause visible damage such as skin discoloration and deformities of the face, hands, and feet. Until the cause of the disease was known, that physical appearance led many to believe that leprosy was hereditary or some sort of curse or punishment from God.

When leprosy was identified as an infectious disease, countries around the world enforced isolation policies to prevent further infection. People who contracted the disease were taken from their families and banished to islands or other remote locations, never to return.

The advent of multi-drug therapy in the 1980s transformed the fight against leprosy. With early detection and proper treatment, visible disabilities could be prevented. Furthermore, in 1991, the WHO adopted a resolution aiming for the elimination of leprosy as a public health problem—defining the goal as reducing the prevalence rate of leprosy to less than 1 case per 10,000 people. This clear target brought together governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders, and the number of leprosy-endemic countries went down drastically. Today, Brazil is the only country that has yet to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem.

Given this tremendous accomplishment, I expected that public views against leprosy would have changed, needless segregation would have ended, and people affected by leprosy would have been able to regain their rightful place in society. However, what I saw in various countries was disappointing. Although no longer confined by physical walls of the sanatoria, the people affected by leprosy continued to be confined by the invisible walls of discrimination. They were unable to do the things that many of us take for granted, such as going to school, finding work, using public transportation, and accessing public places such as hotels and restaurants.

Helping to perpetuate this discrimination were various laws and regulations that had remained on statute books. These laws served only to fan the flames of prejudice and discrimination against people affected by leprosy and their families.

It was frustrating to see how progress made on the medical front did little to solve the problems of stigma and discrimination. So in 2003, I began calling on the international community to address the problems that people affected by leprosy face as a human rights issue.

As a result of countless visits to the UN office and the support of various individuals and organizations, on December 21, 2010 the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution for Elimination of Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy and their Family Members. This was accompanied by a set of Principles and Guidelines.

It was a historic moment; a step forward for the international community, which committed itself to addressing the problems of people affected by leprosy as a violation of human rights; and a step forward for people affected by leprosy around the world, who now gained a foundation upon which to strengthen their cause even further.

Despite such progress, however, examples of injustice caused by old discriminatory laws have not vanished. Only a few years ago, there was a case in India where two men were elected to a civic body but later disqualified because they had leprosy. This action was taken according to the state’s old Municipal Act stipulating that leprosy patients cannot contest a civic election or hold municipal office. The case was brought to India’s Supreme Court but the judges upheld the ruling. It was a bitter reminder that under the rule of law, a law can be upheld no matter how unjust it may be.

But the amazing part about this story is that even in the face of that grave injustice, the two men did not give up. The community of people affected by leprosy came together with them, and with support from various individuals and organizations, the two men submitted a petition calling for the integration and empowerment of people affected by leprosy. A government committee responded to their petition and visited the leprosy colonies and hospitals, where they interviewed residents to gain a better understanding of their circumstances. The committee then submitted recommendations to urgently consider amending the discriminatory provisions.

And at last, on December of 2012, the discriminatory clause involving people affected by leprosy was removed from the statute book. This was a landmark development that proved to society what can be achieved when people affected by leprosy confront a difficult challenge.

So I receive this award together with the men and women affected by leprosy, who are, as we speak, taking a stand to end the stigma and discrimination against them and reclaim their rightful place in society. And I also want to accept this award on behalf of the men and women who are working tirelessly to empower people affected by leprosy through medical treatment and advocacy.

As one of the members in this global fight, I am looking forward to celebrating this honor along with my fellow stakeholders, using this award as an opportunity to renew our commitment to ridding the world of the suffering caused by leprosy and its entailing stigma and discrimination.