End leprosy discrimination laws ‘without delay’, UN rights expert urges

The United Nations

More than 100 laws that remain in place around the world which discriminate against people affected by leprosy, should be abolished, an independent UN human rights expert said on Friday, calling it “shameful” that governments continued to legislate against those suffering from one of the oldest diseases known to humankind.

“It is time for all States concerned to make a choice: whether to keep such discriminatory laws against persons affected by leprosy in violation of international human rights standards, or to eliminate such discrimination in law without delay”, said the Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, Alice Cruz.

According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) figures, provided by 139 countries covering 2020, 127,558 new leprosy cases were detected around the world – a 37 per cent drop in new cases year on year.

And some countries even reported a greater than 50 per cent decrease.

However, as diagnosing and reporting have been impacted by the COVID pandemic, the real numbers may be much higher.

Though curable, without early detection and treatment, the disease can potentially lead to irreversible physical impairments and disability.

Discriminatory laws prevail

India’s national human rights commission has stated there are currently 97 discriminatory legal provisions against those affected by leprosy.

And while it has the highest number of cases, India is not alone in maintaining discriminatory leprosy-related laws, with at least 30 other countries also perpetuating them.

Ms. Cruz said that unfair laws – whether actively enforced or not – motivate, authorize and normalize substantive violations, especially against women.

“The mere existence of laws allowing for divorce on the grounds of leprosy have a devastating impact on women, hindering their access to healthcare and justice”, the UN expert said ahead of World Leprosy Day, marked on Sunday.

“By formalizing harmful stereotypes as lawful labels and normalizing humiliation and violence as authorized practices, such laws significantly compromise livelihoods, exclude people affected by leprosy from political and civic participation, and augment the State’s negligence towards this marginalized group”.

Wrongful framing

The root causes of this legal discriminatory framework are closely connected with the misdiagnosing of leprosy by early modern medicine as a highly contagious disease, according to the Special Rapporteur.

Today, with multidrug therapy, the disease is curable and over the past 20 years, more than 16 million leprosy patients have been treated. 

“Strikingly, many of the existing discriminatory laws were enacted long after the discovery of a cure for leprosy in the 1950s”, said Ms. Cruz.

“Some of these laws have been enacted even during the first decades of the 21st century…[and] span the Global North and Global South”.

The UN expert urged as a matter of priority, for States to amend or abolish discriminatory legislation, policies and customs and to adopt comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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