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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

SPEECH: Leprosy and the Law

The position in international law could not be clearer: no discrimination.

Modern international law was inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is very clear that the discrimination faced by people affected by leprosy is a direct violation of the rights and dignities offered to all people under that declaration.

The detail of international law is in U.N. treaties and conventions and they become binding on a country if it signs them. From that moment, a country is obligated; it must alter its own laws to comply with everything it has signed up to. Over the years, more and more rights have been written into treaties and guaranteed to citizens in this way.

As examples, we have conventions on the rights of the child, against torture and, particularly relevant to leprosy, on the rights of persons with disabilities. This was agreed in 2006 and declares that discrimination against any person on the basis of disability is a violation of the inherent dignity and worth of the human person. It says states must protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities.

If that wasn’t clear enough, the U.N. took a further step in 2010 when the General Assembly adopted its resolution on elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members. That title speaks very plainly. The position in international law could not be clearer: no discrimination.

More importantly, the resolution has set a new global agenda and is continuing to set it, based on the work of the advisory group* and the proposal for an official way of monitoring the progress of countries toward completing the promises made in the principles and guidelines that accompany the 2010 resolution. That soft law is on its journey to becoming hard law.

What international law is doing is setting an example, setting a pace. It is putting more pressure on countries that do not live up to the standards set in that agenda. To keep encouraging the international agenda is a fundamental part of what we can do to make this better future.


Sadly, in national law, the position in some countries is muddled and not so clear as we would like. There are still countries which have old laws that have never been repealed and that deliberately discriminate against those affected by leprosy. Such laws can be challenged these days, because they contradict international law. They can also be challenged because they contradict rights guaranteed to citizens by their country’s constitution.

Most countries now have constitutions that are fairly new or recently revised to draw on the enlightened language of international law. Many countries have established constitutional courts specifically to hear cases that make challenges to contradictory old laws.

The IBA will continue to urge and encourage lawyers and their national bar associations to work with leprosy-related NGOs to bring cases to court. As well as challenging old laws that are wrong, we want to see them removed and replaced by laws that guarantee all the rights guaranteed by international law.


I must commend the Law Commission of India on its recent report.** India carries a special responsibility because it is the country with the most new cases of leprosy and the most laws discriminating against those with the disease.

The Law Commission rightly observes that the laws in India on this issue are a matter of shame. Its report is a model in setting out how to change the law, not merely to remove the old discrimination but to compel the state to provide those affected by leprosy with the social, economic and practical support which they need to help overcome the difficulties they face.

Some countries still have discriminatory old laws that have never been repealed.

The IBA and 46 member associations endorsed the 2013 Global Appeal to end stigma and discrimination against people affected by leprosy.

Many other countries could learn much and achieve much by following the lead given by this remarkable report. I believe it should be circulated widely. It has been so clearly inspired by the 2010 U.N. resolution and accompanying principles and guidelines. It shows the road by which international law can travel to become new and better law at national level, although we still have much campaigning to do to make that happen in India.

We should continue to use these two documents, the principles and guidelines, and the India Law Commission report, to encourage lawyers and lawmakers everywhere to work until such new laws are introduced in all the countries where leprosy still diminishes lives in so unjust a way. The IBA will carry on working with the international community to keep heightening its awareness of this ongoing injustice, and to keep international law extending and deepening its focus and agenda-setting on this issue of leprosy and to treat those things with proper and urgent priority.


PROFILE: Tim Hughes

Tim Hughes is Deputy Executive Director of the International Bar Association (IBA), the global body of the legal profession. This is an edited version of his presentation at the International Symposium on Leprosy and Human Rights in Geneva on June 18.


* The International Working Group (see page 2)
**Report No.256 on “Eliminating Discrimination against Persons Affected by Leprosy” (April 2015)