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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

ENCOUNTER: Advice from an Expert

Wise words from a human rights champion on implementing a UN resolution.

Dr. Bertrand Ramcharan: a man whose heart is in human rights

When I first met Dr. Bertrand G. Ramcharan in 2003, it was the starting point of a resolution on leprosy discrimination that would eventually be adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 20101.

At the time, Dr. Ramcharan was the Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights2. I had called on him at the Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva to focus attention on a long-overlooked human rights issue: the discrimination suffered around the world by people affected by leprosy and their family members. He gave me some very good advice, setting in motion a process that reached its historic conclusion at UN headquarters in New York seven years later.

Visiting Geneva this May, I wanted to thank Dr. Ramcharan for the role he had played at the outset and also to seek his views on how best to ensure that the UN resolution and its accompanying principles and guidelines are implemented. He recalled our first encounter.

I suggest you organize five regional seminars. You need to publicize it.

"I was really very touched when you brought this issue to me. And I was even more touched when you brought a group of people who have experienced leprosy to my office. I remember one man saying to me: 'For centuries we have been outcasts of society; now we are sitting in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.'"

Speaking of the resolution, Dr. Ramcharan told me: "Even though you have done all this work, there is still considerably more to be done to make governments and experts aware of it. I suggest you organize five regional seminars in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania on its implementation. You need to publicize it."

Continuing with a passion undiminished from that first meeting, he said: "The five seminars would be followed by an international seminar in Geneva, resulting in a report or a commentary on the resolution. At the end of that process, you will have more sensitization, publicity and understanding, and will have distilled ideas on how to take things forward."


As Goodwill Ambassador, I have frequent contact with news organizations and regard them as among my most important partners in spreading awareness and understanding of leprosy. So I was interested to hear Dr. Ramcharan's views on the role of the media in human rights.

"I have a number of positive examples of the use of the media in promoting human rights," he said. "For example, New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn have sensitized the world to trafficking in women, gender-based violence and maternal mortality with their 2009 book Half the Sky. NGOs should look for journalists of the quality of Nicholas Kristoff and engage in personal interactions with them to draw attention to the issues."

"I am afraid we are not necessarily dealing with good intentions on human rights all over the world," he continued. "The pro human rights actor or NGO must be adept at exploiting the political environment to advantage. It is very important to have a political strategy to deal with human rights issues, and then to use the media and other partners carefully."

Returning to the subject of the UN resolution, he told me: "For people who are living with or who have recovered from leprosy, I would like to say that I think that the implementation of this declaration can make a great difference toward enhancement of their dignity and respect for their rights. Mr. Sasakawa, I look forward to your further efforts."


1 Resolution on Elimination of Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy and Their Family Members, adopted at the Plenary Meeting of the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly (21 December 2010).

2 Dr. Ramcharan is currently president of UPR Info, an NGO based in Geneva.

AUTHOR: Yohei Sasakawa

Yohei Sasakawa is Chairman, The Nippon Foundation, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination and Japanese Government Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of People Affected by Leprosy.