GENEVA (3 July 2018) – Political leaders in France and Italy must immediately stop using “leprosy” as a metaphor in debates on nationalism, says a UN human rights expert.
“Remarks reportedly made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Luigi Di Maio, in which leprosy was used as a metaphor for a rise in nationalism, are appalling,” said Alice Cruz, the Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members.
Mr. Macron was reported as saying of nationalists: “You can see them rise a bit like leprosy all across Europe, in countries where we thought that it would be impossible to see them again, in neighbouring countries.”
Mr. Macron’s comments were allegedly followed by a statement by Mr. Di Maio saying: “The real leprosy is the European hypocrisy of someone who pushes back migrants at [the French-Italian border at] Ventimiglia, and then moralises about how to manage them.”
The UN expert stressed: “The use of such expressions and references to leprosy in political debate only promotes misunderstanding of leprosy and discrimination against people affected by it.
“Leprosy has become much more than a disease. It has become a metaphor for everything that is socially considered ‘shameful’ and disrupting and should be kept apart,” Ms Cruz noted.
“National leaders should choose their words appropriately and responsibly, and they should avoid attacking one of the most marginalised groups,” Ms Cruz added.
“Remarks made by national leaders undoubtedly have widespread implications, and could strengthen the wrongly held view that leprosy has been eliminated across the world - ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands of individuals are affected each year and millions others live with the disease and related stigma and discrimination.
“The view that leprosy no longer exists could lead to a loss of already scarce financial support for scientific research, public health initiatives and other targeted programmes, including those aimed at combating discrimination and stigma against those affected.
“We should all lift the veil of stigma and stereotypes that render invisible the actual human beings affected by leprosy, acknowledge the impact the disease has on them and their family members, and commit ourselves to the protection and promotion of their rights,” Ms. Cruz emphasized.
The Special Rapporteur reminded France and Italy of their obligations and commitments under the Principles and Guidelines for the Elimination of Discrimination against Persons affected by Leprosy and their Family members. The document makes clear that the use of discriminatory language including the derogatory use of the term “leper” or its equivalent in any language and dialect, is prohibited.
“States that have voluntarily approved the Principles and Guidelines should promote them, and help in the elimination of discrimination and stigma against people affected by leprosy and their family members,” Ms Cruz stressed.
Ms Alice Cruz (Portugal) was appointed in November 2017 as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination of persons affected by leprosy and their family members. She is an External Professor at the Law School of University Andina Simón Bolívar in Ecuador. Ms Cruz has conducted fieldwork in Portugal, Brazil, South Africa, Bolivia and Ecuador, and has researched and written on the subject of eliminating leprosy and the stigma attached to it. Her doctoral work in sociology focuses on the biosocial dimensions of leprosy and identifies the different barriers to access to early diagnosis and to high quality care by those affected, as well as their social, economic, family and personal life conditions.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Proceduresof the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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