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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

TRIBUTE: Death of a Human Rights Champion

Remembering Bernard Ka'owakaokalani Punikai'a and his 'Quest for Dignity'


It is appropriate that we begin our united campaign against fear and ignorance at the United Nations, a place where world leaders come together to resolve world problems. It is our expectation that this Exhibition will help dispel ignorance, reaffirm our humanity and unite us in partnership with others . . . We want to be a part of the process, to be in a position to help others as well as ourselves . . . A Quest for Dignity.

- Bernard K. Punikai'a

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Bernard Punikai'a educates young students at the Quest for Dignity Exhibit, Honolulu City Hall, 1998. Photo by Pamela Parlapiano

Bernard K. Punikai'a, human rights advocate, musician, composer, Vice-President of the Coalition for Specialized Housing, recipient of one of the first Wellesley Bailey Awards, and IDEA's President for International Advocacy from 1997-2007, passed away in Honolulu, Hawaii, on February 25, 2009. He was buried at Kalaupapa on March 11 . IDEA's International Day of Dignity and Respect, a day he helped establish in 1999 as an occasion to reaffirm the dignity inherent in every individual.

Bernard was born in Honolulu in 1930. At the age of 6, he was taken from his mother because he had leprosy and sent to Kalihi Hospital. In 1942, at the age of 11, he was sent to the Kalaupapa peninsula where he would go on to hold many leadership roles. In Hawaii, he is best known for his efforts to resist the closure of Hale Mohalu, the Honolulu-based treatment facility that provided an alternative to Kalaupapa. As a result of these efforts, a specialized housing complex was built at Hale Mohalu which now provides affordable housing for close to 300 senior citizens and people with disabilities.

"Quest for Dignity" -- words that have been translated into numerous languages -- came from an interview given by Bernard in 1985. At the United Nations, Bernard's words not only launched an exhibit, but an international social movement. Quest for Dignity was a vehicle for challenging old attitudes and promoting the inclusion of the voices of individuals affected by leprosy in planning and policy-making as well as in their own history.

Bernard attended four International Leprosy Congresses, beginning in 1984. In 1998, his presentation in Beijing outlined the process that led from discrimination to acceptance and participation.

"Twenty years ago I was denied service in a restaurant because I had Hansen's disease. Fifteen years ago I was arrested for attempting to have a voice in decisions concerning my future. Ten years ago I was appointed to the Hawaii State Board of Health. Last year I spoke at the United Nations and was elected IDEA's President for International Advocacy. The process that has led from discrimination and rejection to acceptance and participation provides practical solutions for eliminating society's fear...

"When injustices accumulate over a long period of time, the human spirit can no longer accept such conditions, and three things occur. First, individuals realize that they have to assert themselves and speak out publicly in order to be seen as people, not a disease. Second, they realize that one cannot fight discrimination alone, so they network with others who have had Hansen's disease. And, third, they reach out to caring people in the community to become partners in overcoming restrictive policies, archaic attitudes and discriminatory actions.

"It's ultimately about empowering yourself. You have been put in a box . that little box whose walls are people's misconceptions about us, about what we can and cannot do. Unless you speak out, unless you let your feelings be known, people will not know you. They will not see into your heart."

Within a few hours of Bernard's death, messages started coming in from around the world, from Japan, Brazil, South Korea, P.R. China, Mali, Nigeria, the mainland U.S., India and Nepal. Miyoji Morimoto wrote: "I first met you at the IDEA exhibit held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in 1997. You have been with me ever since. You have left un-erasable footprints in the quest for world peace and human happiness. You have united people who had Hansen's disease. You were the pride of IDEA. You were the hope of IDEA. Now you have so many of us who are following your path with the same determination you had."


AUTHOR: Anwei Skinsnes Law

Anwei Skinsnes Law is International Coordinator for IDEA . the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement.