Bringing leprosy to the notice of the UN subcommission on human rights in 2003 was an important and overdue step in focusing minds on the human rights dimension of this oldest of diseases. But placing the issue on the agenda of the new UN Human Rights Council will not be easy when so many other issues clamor for its attention.
However, as former sub-commission special rapporteur Yozo Yokota tells us in an interview, he is recommending that the Council continue to study the human rights implications of leprosy and that other UN bodies and agencies endeavor to address the issue. In terms of the number of people affected, leprosy-based discrimination is too big an issue to push aside, says Professor Yokota; moreover, it has elements in common with other forms of discrimination, such as that relating to poverty, caste and minorities. We hope, therefore, that the Council will follow his recommendation and treat the matter with the urgency it deserves.
Meanwhile, at the grass-roots level, efforts to break down barriers between people affected by leprosy and mainstream society are continuing in different countries. In this issue, we feature the work of Joy In Action, an NGO established in 2004 to organize work camps to improve living conditions in leprosy-affected villages in China.
Initially, only student volunteers from abroad, such as Ryotaro Harada, took part in the camps, as the isolated villages with their neglected inhabitants were off the radar of Chinese students. Now all that has changed, and the work camp ethic is spreading fast.
Not only do the work camps result in physical improvements to the villages, but they also enrich the lives of the inhabitants in other ways through the relationships they develop with the young volunteers. For both villagers and volunteers alike, it is a heartwarming experience, as our cover photo clearly shows.