Guest Post: Lack of redress for the Magdalene Laundries Abuse – A Continuing Violation of UNCAT

We are delighted to welcome this guest post by Maeve O’Rourke. Maeve is the 2010-2011 Harvard Law School Global Human Rights Fellow and serves on the advisory committee of Justice for Magdalenes (JFM). You can read about Maeve and see links to her previous posts for HRinI on our guests page.

Later this month, the United Nations Committee against Torture will examine Ireland for the first time on the extent to which it is meeting its human rights obligations under the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT)Justice for Magdalenes (JFM) has taken the opportunity to submit an NGO report to the Committee against Torture on the lack of redress for women who were incarcerated and forced into unpaid labour in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, as we wait for the government’s response to the Irish Human Rights Commission’s Recommendation from November 2010 to immediately establish a statutory inquiry into the Magdalene Laundries abuse and ensure redress as appropriate.

Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) in 2002, while the last Magdalene Laundry closed in 1996, prior to ratification. Therefore, JFM’s report to the Committee focuses on the continuing violations of the Convention which the women are suffering as a result of the State’s ongoing failure to initiate an investigation into and ensure compensation for the torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment they endured in the Magdalene Laundries.

On the issue of continuing violations of the Convention in the context of individual communications to the Committee against Torture under article 22 UNCAT, the Committee ruled in A.A. v. Azerbaijan [Communication No. 247/2004] that although “a State party’s obligations under the Convention apply from the date of its entry into force for that State party”, the Committee “can examine alleged violations of the Convention which occurred before a State party’s recognition of the Committee’s competence to receive and consider individual communications alleging violations of the Convention … if the effects of these violations continued after the declaration under article 22 became effective, and if the effects constitute in themselves a violation of the Convention.”

JFM’s report to the Committee submits that the continuing effects of the Magdalene Laundries abuse, resulting from the State’s ongoing failure to inquire or provide redress, amount to degrading treatment in violation of Article 16 UNCAT. This claim is elaborated below.

We further submit that Ireland is violating its obligations under Articles 12, 13 and 14 UNCAT to promptly and impartially investigate allegations of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and to ensure redress for such treatment.

These claims are accompanied by background evidence of the torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment suffered by women and girls in the Magdalene Laundries from 1922 – 1996. In accordance with the Article 1 and Article 16 UNCAT definition of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, this includes evidence of the underlying reasons for the treatment, including sex discrimination and criminal punishment; physical and mental suffering caused by unlawful imprisonment, forced labour, and physical and psychological maltreatment; state involvement in and awareness of the Magdalene Laundries’ incarcerative and commercial functions; and state acquiescence in the abuse through the State’s wilful failure to regulate or inspect the laundries (see previous HRinI posts here).

In terms of the degrading treatment that women who spent time in Magdalene Laundries continue to suffer, JFM’s submission highlights the following:

The women have not received a pension for the compulsory yet unpaid work they were forced to carry out. After 1953 there was a statutory obligation governing employers’ withholding of pension contributions; however, the religious orders made no contributions for the women in the laundries and the State did not enforce the law.

The women have not received healthcare or education to assist them in overcoming the physical and psychological effects of the abuse.

The women have not been acknowledged by the State as survivors of a grave injustice. A particular stigma and sense of shame still attaches to the women’s experiences in the Magdalene laundries, which the State has taken no steps to relieve. In the absence of an apology and official acknowledgment that what happened to them was wrong, many women feel compelled to remain silent about the injustices perpetrated upon them in the Magdalene Laundries.

The State has not produced any personal records for the women and girls whom it was responsible for incarcerating in the Magdalene Laundries. Nor has the State taken steps to ensure the release of the women’s personal records from the custody of the religious orders. This has created identification difficulties for the women and their families, in particular the families of women who died behind convent walls.  The children of former Magdalene women, especially adult adopted persons searching to reunite with their natural family and/or discover family medical histories, are also impacted by the inaccessibility of records.

Many of the women who spent time in the Magdalene Laundries are elderly, and they experience the State’s unwillingness to take meaningful steps towards restorative justice as the pursuit of the policy “deny ’til they die”.

To conclude, the requirement to highlight the State’s continuing violations of the Convention Against Torture, given the date of Ireland’s ratification, rightly situates the women who suffered abuse in the Magdalene Laundries, and their human rights, in the present and not in the past.

As the women’s current experiences clearly demonstrate, the State’s abandonment of its duty to protect these women is not an historical abuse. It is a living one, which urgently demands a remedy.


Guest Post: Lack of redress for the Magdalene Laundries Abuse – A Continuing Violation of UNCAT

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