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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

HUMAN RIGHTS: Perspectives from Japan

Experts brief IWG members on Japan's approach to resolving leprosy issues.

The International Working Group (IWG) to formulate action plans and monitoring mechanisms for the implementation of Principles and Guidelines on ending discrimination against people affected by leprosy met in Tokyo for its second meeting on March 15. A day earlier, five Japanese experts representing the government, the legal profession, the media, civil society and people affected by leprosy gave visiting IWG members their views on Japan's experiences with leprosy and human rights.

Koji Abe, who directs the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Human Rights and Humanitarian Division, described how the Japanese government "took the initiative" to fight leprosy-related discrimination internationally from 2007. Working through the Human Rights Council, it tabled resolutions that led to the historic resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010.

The government has pursued the issue in other human-rights arenas, too, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights. It will continue to provide "vigorous support" for efforts to tackle discrimination, Abe said.

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IWG members and colleagues, photographed in Tokyo on March 15.

BYSTANDERS' CULPABILITY

Michihiro Ko, who heads Zenryokyo, the national association of sanatoria residents, provided the perspective of people forcibly confined to sanatoria under the Leprosy Prevention Law. Over the decades his organization fought to have the law abolished, to improve the quality of residents' lives and to restore their dignity in the face of stigma and prejudice that saw many of them disowned even by their own families.

Analyzing the history of discrimination in Japan, Ko said there were perpetrators, victims, and bystanders. It was the attitude of the bystanders - "citizens blindly accepting the government stance" on leprosy - that was the "main reason for the problems we faced."

Yasuyuki Tokuda, a lawyer, regretted that lawyers did not become actively involved in the issue until the Leprosy Prevention Law was repealed in 1996. "This is a blemish on our profession," he said.

In an effort to "make up for the mistakes of the past," Tokuda has pursued compensation for those who were isolated in sanatoria under the law. He has also worked to ensure that people who suffered a similar fate when Taiwan and Korea were under Japanese rule are compensated. "Over the years, I have keenly felt that the role of lawyers is to work alongside people like Mr. Ko," Tokuda said. Nevertheless, he concluded, "I don't think we have ever been able to atone for our sin."

MEDIA 'SHAME'

Another profession that came in for self-criticism was journalism. Masayoshi Esashi is a member of the editorial board of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper company. In the past, he said, papers overlooked "the incessant struggle taking place behind the walls of the sanatoria - the forced abortions, the sterilizations. That is the shame of the media."

Today, one of the critical issues facing sanatoria residents is the declining quality of services and reduced staffing. But without better media coverage of their plight, gaining public understanding is difficult. "At one point, the elderly residents proposed going on hunger strike in protest. I was shocked. I covered this story, but it was not widely reported," he said. "Everyone needs to know that past policies violated their Constitutional rights."

Generating greater public awareness is the role of a citizens' study group headed by Professor Takahisa Endoh. Among its objectives are to find a way to have the public embrace leprosy as an issue than concerns everyone, to complete the work of the verification committee into the problems concerning leprosy*, and to take over the activities of Zenryokyo as its aging members pass away. "Leprosy is an interdisciplinary issue. Cross-cutting is needed," Professor Endoh said. "We want to involve all people.

IWG members appreciated the opportunity to learn more about Japan's experiences, with some aspects of what they had heard coming as a surprise. Said Ethiopia's Menberu Adane Yihunie, "Even in Japan, there are still people longing to drink tea with their relatives."

FOOTNOTE

* The Japan Law Foundation Verification Committee Concerning the Hansen's Disease Problem issued a report in 2005 to verify the reason why the segregation policy was implemented for so long, the reality of the human rights violations caused and to make recommendations and proposals to prevent a recurrence.