In April 2011, faced with continued silence from government regarding the IHRC’s Assessment of the Human Rights Issues Arising in relation to the ‘Magdalen Laundries’, JFM submitted a shadow report to the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) for the Committee’s first periodic review of Ireland.
For this purpose, and for the purpose of a shadow report for the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Ireland later in 2011, JFM’s Maeve O’Rourke interviewed four women who had been incarcerated in different Magdalene Laundries between the late 1950s and late 1960s. The women, whose testimonies were appended, anonymised, to JFM’s reports, gave evidence of An Garda Síochána returning girls or women who escaped and of washing laundry from the State-regulated and State-funded Industrial Schools, amongst other laundry and needlework. They were unanimous in stating that they were not free to leave, were forced to work constantly for no pay and were subjected to severe physical and psychological abuse and neglect.
Ireland having ratified the Convention against Torture in 2002, while the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, JFM relied on the ‘continuing violations’ doctrine, which provides that the Committee may examine alleged violations of the Convention which occurred before a State Party’s ratification of the Convention if the effects of those violations continued after ratification and if the effects constitute themselves a violation of the Convention (See for example A.A. v Azerbaijan, Communication No 247/2004, 25 November 2005).
JFM argued that the requirements of articles 1 and/or 16 of the Convention against Torture were met (due to the women and girls being confined in Magdalene Laundries on the basis of their sex and some as criminal punishment, and because the State involved itself directly in, consented to and acquiesced in the incarceration, forced labour and physical and psychological abuse and neglect portrayed in the available survivor testimony; Dr James M Smith’s evidence of State involvement was of crucial importance) and that since Ireland’s ratification of the Convention in 2002, the State had continued to violate its obligations under articles 12, 13 and 14 to investigate and ensure redress for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries. JFM highlighted the IHRC’s Assessment in support of its arguments. JFM also noted the present day suffering of the women as a result of these continuing violations, including poverty, psychiatric illness, educational deficits, lack of access to records and a deep sense of stigmatisation.
The opportunity to brief the Committee in person during the NGO session was invaluable for JFM. So too was the live online streaming of the sessions, which was coordinated by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. All members of JFM were able to watch the proceedings and draft press releases immediately. In addition, JFM representatives were able to share the videos with women who had given their testimony to our organisation.
In response to numerous questions regarding the Magdalene Laundries, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice told the Committee that to his Department’s knowledge no complaints had been made to the police. He stated that ‘the vast majority of women who went to these institutions went there voluntarily or, if they were children, with the consent of their parents or guardians’. He added that ‘these alleged events happened in most cases a considerable time ago, in privately run institutions’.
The acting Chairperson of the Committee, Felice Gaer, noted that Magdalene survivors ‘are alive’ and questioned the ‘private’ and ‘voluntary’ nature of the laundries’ operations:
I think ‘voluntary’ means that one makes a choice, that one is informed, that one is then free to leave.
…Do you have anything to suggest that the vast majority of women who went there were aware of the conditions…if they made a choice, if they were given information?
…We had testimony about locked doors and people being captured by police and returned…
…An act of torture may also arise from an act of omission and not just a positive act. So this appears to include failure to inspect or regulate the place where acts of torture occurred… wouldn’t this apply to the Magdalene Laundries…?
Regarding the Department’s argument that no-one had made a criminal complaint, Ms Gaer stated that Article 14 of the Convention Against Torture ‘doesn’t say “seeks” redress, it says “obtains”‘
Committee member Dr Nora Sveaass said that redress or reparation ‘shouldn’t be dependent on three or four or five of these women coming forward and complaining’. Ms Gaer had earlier expressed concern over the fact that, despite the extensive evidence gathered by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse regarding endemic abuse in Industrial and Reformatory Schools, the State had forwarded only 11 cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions, eight of which had been rejected.
See also UN Committee against Torture, Summary record of the 1005th meeting held at the Palais Wilson, Geneva, on Tuesday, 24 May 2011, at 3pm, UN Doc CAT/C/SR 1005, http://www.bayefsky.com/summary/ireland_cat_c_sr1005_2011.pdf
The Committee’s Concluding Observations were published on 5 June 2011. In them, the Committee expressed grave concern at ‘the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in Magdalene Laundries’. The Committee recommended prompt, independent and thorough investigations into allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment in Magdalene Laundries; in appropriate cases, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators; and that the State ensure that all victims obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation. The Committee included this recommendation in its one year follow-up process, signalling its particularly urgent nature.
The Committee’s session with the government and its Concluding Observations were covered by all major Irish news outlets and international sources, including the New York Times, Time Magazine, the BBC and Guardian. In the following days, several Senators and TDs called for Seanad and Dáil debates on the IHRC and CAT recommendations and JFM organised an email campaign directed at Cabinet members.
RTE News coverage of Justice for Magdalenes’ Follow-Up Report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT). At the event, a courtesy copy of the Report was presented to Felice Gaer, Vice Chair of UNCAT, who was appearing in a personal capacity at an event co-hosted by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and JFM.
Download the JFM submission to UNCAT here
Download the UNCAT Concluding Observations here
Download the JFM Follow-Up submission to UNCAT here
The information on this page has been adapted from: Maeve O’Rourke, ‘The Justice for Magdalenes Campaign’ in Suzanne Egan (ed.), Implementing International Human Rights: Perspectives from Ireland (Bloomsbury, 2016)