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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

EXPLAINER: Leprosy and Human Rights

A quick refresher course on UN resolutions on leprosy and where we go from here.

At its 35th session in June, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 35/9 on elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members. It was submitted by the Japanese government and cosponsored by 50 countries.

Haven’t there been similar Human Rights Council resolutions in the past?

Yes. The Council previously adopted resolutions at its 8th, 12th, 15th and 29th sessions in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2015, respectively. In addition, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 65/215 in December 2010.

Why the need for so many resolutions?

They represent an ongoing process that began when the UN decided to investigate leprosy as a human rights issue, which continues as it seeks ways to have states and other actors effectively implement measures to end discrimination.

When was this issue first taken up by the UN?

After a visit to Geneva by the Goodwill Ambassador in 2003 (see p.1) and follow-up actions, in August 2004 the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights assigned Professor Yozo Yokota to prepare a working paper on discrimination against persons affected by leprosy. A year later he was appointed special rapporteur and asked to conduct a survey and produce a comprehensive study.

What happened next?

In 2006, Professor Yokota presented a preliminary report and was asked to continue. But that year, the Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission were dissolved. They were replaced by the Human Rights Council and an Advisory Committee.

What became of Professor Yokota’s report?

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The Principles and Guidelines have been translated into several languages. This Bahasa Indonesia version was published in 2014.

Although never submitted, the report, which included Principles and Guidelines to end discrimination, recommended that the Human Rights Council continue to study the issue. When the Council resolved to take up the issue in 2008, the report provided a platform for the Advisory Committee’s investigations.

How did the Human Rights Council become involved?

In 2007, The Nippon Foundation appealed to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to pursue the issue. The following year, the Japanese government announced that ending leprosy-related discrimination was now an important plank of its diplomacy, appointing the foundation’s chairman, Yohei Sasakawa, as the Japanese government’s Goodwill Ambassador for the Human Rights of Persons Affected by Leprosy. The Japanese government has since taken the lead in sponsoring all five Human Rights Council resolutions to date, as well as the General Assembly resolution.

How have the various Human Rights Council resolutions differed from one another?

Resolution 8/13 (2008) pointed out that the issue of leprosy is not only a matter of medicine or health but also one of discrimination that can give rise to a clear violation of human rights. It called on governments to take measures to eliminate discrimination and requested the Advisory Committee to formulate a draft set of Principles and Guidelines for the elimination of leprosy-related discrimination and submit it to the Council by 2009.

Resolution 12/7 (2009) requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to collect the views of governments, NGOs, persons affected by leprosy and others regarding the Principles and Guidelines, and requested the Advisory Committee to finalize them by taking these views into account.

Resolution 15/10 (2010) expressed appreciation to the Advisory Committee for finalizing the Principles and Guidelines, encouraged governments and others to give them due consideration, and invited the UN General Assembly to consider the issue of leprosy-related discrimination.

And this the General Assembly duly did in December 2010?

Correct. Resolution 65/215 noted with appreciation the Principles and Guidelines and encouraged governments to give them due consideration in the formulation of their policies, and for other actors to do the same. Sponsored by the Japanese government, cosponsored by 84 countries and adopted without a vote by 192 countries, it represented a historic achievement.

So why was there a need for the Human Rights Council to revisit the issue again five years later?

As is apparent from the language, i.e., in the way governments are “encouraged” to give the Principles and Guidelines “due consideration,” the General Assembly resolution is not a legally binding document. Those who had worked hard for the resolution felt more needed to be done to ensure that the Principles and Guidelines were put into practice, and took steps to see that they did not end up as just words on paper.

Steps such as?

Among other initiatives, The Nippon Foundation organized a series of five international symposiums on leprosy and human rights between 2012 and 2015 to promote awareness of the General Assembly resolution and encourage implementation of the Principles and Guidelines. Following the first symposium in Brazil, it also established an International Working Group to make recommendations on implementation and on a mechanism to monitor the activities of states.

How much were these reflected in the 2015 resolution?

Resolution 29/5 mandated the Advisory Committee to undertake a study reviewing the implementation of the Principles and Guidelines, and any obstacles in the way. It was asked to submit a report to the Council at its 35th session in June 2017 containing practical suggestions for their wider dissemination and more effective implementation.

What did the report recommend?

There were two key recommendations. One was to establish a specific and dedicated mechanism within existing UN human rights machinery to follow up, monitor and report on progress made by states in the effective implementation of the Principles and Guidelines. The other was to encourage the OHCHR in cooperation with states, relevant international organizations such as WHO as well as concerned NGOs, to organize seminars, conferences and side events on leprosy and leprosy-related discrimination.

What’s in the new resolution?

Resolution 35/9 mandates the appointment, for a period of three years, of a special rapporteur. He or she is tasked to follow up and report on progress made and measures taken by states for the effective implementation of the Principles and Guidelines; to identify, exchange and promote good practices; and to report annually to the Human Rights Council, starting from its 38th session. The resolution also encourages states and all relevant stakeholders to participate actively in seminars, as recommended in the Advisory Committee report.

What happens next?

The Council is now calling for applications to fill the position of special rapporteur and expects to announce the appointment at its 36th session in September. The work undertaken by the special rapporteur over the coming years will be extremely important. In particular, the visits to countries of his/her choice will represent a real opportunity to refocus attention on the issues that remain, and for all stakeholders to come together and lend their support to the special rapporteur so as to achieve effective implementation of the Principles and Guidelines.