Elizabeth Coppin pictured at Áras an Uachtaráin in 2018 PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo
Elizabeth coppin

'I feel deflated, so low': Magdalene laundry survivor loses case at UN Committee Against Torture

Elizabeth Coppin argued that Ireland had violated her human rights under the Convention against Torture.

A MAGDALENE LAUNDRY survivor has expressed her disappointment that the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) has concluded the Irish State did not breach her human rights.

In her complaint, Elizabeth Coppin argued that Ireland had violated her rights under articles 12, 13, 14 and 16 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Coppin argued that Ireland had failed to undertake a prompt and impartial investigation into her allegations of abuse and had not ensured that she could obtain full redress, and also failed to act to prevent cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

However, in its final decision, UNCAT concluded that Ireland was not in violation of these articles. The committee published its decision on 31 October 2022, but Coppin has not commented on it until today.

Coppin (73) was born in St Columbanus’s county home in Killarney in 1949 to a teenage single mother. Aged two, she was taken from her mother and a judge sent her to an industrial school. As a teenager, between 1964 and 1968, she was held in three different Magdalene laundries.

During this time Coppin said she was detained against her will, subjected to forced labour, neglect, unsanitary living conditions, denial of identity, denial of privacy and ritual humiliation.

A psychological evaluation submitted to UNCAT as part of her complaint noted that Coppin “has endured to date immense and severe psychological suffering as a result of her experiences in the Industrial school and the Magdalene Laundries”.

“This psychological suffering is characterised by anxiety, post-trauma stress, depression, poor social functioning and interpersonal problems.”

On one occasion in the Magdalene laundry in Peacock Lane, Cork, Coppin was wrongly accused of stealing sweets. As punishment, she was forced to spend three days in solitary confinement in a padded room – a bare room with no light or bed.

In a personal statement due to be published later today, Coppin will state she is “deeply disappointed that the Committee found the State did all it could to investigate the violation of my human rights”.

“I have been seeking Justice for the past 25 years, for the cruel, degrading, abusive and torturous treatment I endured when in the care of the Irish State…

“There has never been a prompt impartial investigation. No one has considered the abuse of my human rights. That has been recognised by the Committee on other occasions, as was pointed out by three members of the Committee who disagreed and (unusually) wrote dissenting Opinions.

I lived through this abuse. I was part of an experiment of keeping girls, women, children and babies suppressed. It was and remains a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights.

In 2011, following a recommendation by UNCAT, the Irish Government set up a committee chaired by then-Senator Martin McAleese to examine the State’s involvement in Magdalene laundries.

In his final report, published in 2013, McAleese noted that State officials oversaw committals and transfers to the laundries; the State passed legislation facilitating the delegation of a range of criminal justice and social care functions to the laundries; State agencies failed to adequately regulate the laundries; and State agencies entered into service contracts with the laundries.

In June 2013, UNCAT criticised the report, saying “despite its length and detail, [it] did not conduct a fully independent investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour or ill-treatment”.

There has also been much criticism of the redress scheme founded on foot of McAleese’s report. 

Coppin, who now lives in England, lodged legal proceedings against the State and relevant religious orders, but the case was struck out in the High Court in 2000 due to “inordinate and inexcusable delay”.

This phrase is often used in cases where legal action is brought such a long time after the original injury that a fair trial is deemed impossible, for instance because perpetrators have since died.  

UNCAT decision 

In its submission to UNCAT, the State argued that Coppin’s treatment in the laundries has “been fully investigated by appropriate agencies”.

“The allegations made by the Complainant in relation to her treatment in an Industrial School and the Magdalen Laundries were investigated by An Garda Síochána and it was determined that no prosecution could be brought against any individuals,” the submission noted. 

The State also said Coppin had been granted redress “in respect of the manner in which she was treated in the institutions in which she was resident, which include an Industrial School and three Magdalen Laundries”.

In its decision in October 2022, UNCAT noted Coppin’s “contention that none of the investigations undertaken by the State party have been effective”.

It stated: “Having been repeatedly informed of the complainant’s allegations and those of other women with similar experiences, and having taken actions to respond to them, including through the establishment of the IDC and the two ex-gratia payment schemes, from which the complainant obtained awards in 2005 and 2014, the State party has opened both civilian and criminal investigations into the substance of the complainant’s allegations.

“The Committee notes the State party’s argument that the complainant initiated the civil proceedings before the High Court but failed to submit an appeal against the decision to struck-out her case; that the State party initiated criminal investigations which could not establish accountability as the alleged perpetrators passed; and that the complainant received two awards of compensation and signed two  waivers from further claims.

In the circumstances, the Committee considers that the State party undertook necessary examinations of the complainant’s claims by competent authorities, even if not fully conclusive, and that the acceptance of the two awards  against the signature of waivers, preceded by establishment of facts, led to a partial admission of responsibility on part of the State party.

Coppin said that reading UNCAT’s decision was very difficult.

“I felt deflated, so low, and very sad, not just for me but for all of the Magdalene women who died in vain.

“Thoughts of isolation, despair and how I felt as a young girl came flooding to mind, of when I was trafficked to three Magdalene Laundries, by the State and their agents,” her statement notes.

Three members dissented

UNCAT’s decision last October was not unanimous. In a somewhat unusual move, three committee members dissented.

In their joint dissenting opinion, Ana Racu and Erdogan Iscan wrote: “We disagree with the Committee’s conclusion under article 12, that the State party took the “necessary measures” to conduct an objective and timely investigation into the complainant’s claims.

“The record demonstrates that the State party, other than gathering information, has failed to conduct a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention, forced labour and ill-treatment to which the complainant has been subjected. The Committee’s decision sets a discouraging precedent undermining the obligations under article 12.”

Racu and Iscan also noted that while compensation is an important form of reparation, it “never replaces a full rehabilitation”.

“It is not a formal acknowledgement of truth and harms suffered. Without truth and acknowledgement of what happened, no amount of money can be rehabilitative, or fix the pain and suffering inflicted.

Ex gratia payments and waivers prevent the survivors from ever seeking truth in the courts. This may amount to impunity. Denying access to justice and accountability leads to denial of the right to seek full rehabilitation.

Todd Buchwald, who also dissented, outlined his reasoning in a separate statement. He noted that the committee’s decision in this case is at odds with its previous stance on the matter.

“Most significantly, this case does not come to the Committee on a blank slate. The Committee in 2017 concluded “that the State party has not undertaken an independent, thorough and effective investigation,” and explicitly reiterated these conclusions in the May 2019 letter of its Rapporteur for Follow-Up.

The Committee itself is formally on record that the State party’s investigations were insufficient to pass muster. One may ask what the Committee thinks has changed between then and now.

“To be clear, there are unquestionably situations in which it is appropriate for the Committee to modify or reverse previous conclusions. However, it is incumbent upon the Committee to offer some kind of genuine explanation of why it is reversing itself, and failure to do so risks undermining the respect for the Committee’s work that is essential for it to be effective.

“That seems particularly so in the present case, where the alleged conduct was pervasive and occurred over a protracted period of time. In the absence of such an explanation, I find myself unable to join in the Committee’s decision,” Buchwald wrote. 

‘State continues to degrade her’

A number of human rights experts have criticised UNCAT’s decision.

Máiréad Enright, Professor of Feminist Legal Studies at Birmingham Law School, said the decision is “a shocking rebuff to a brave and dignified survivor of serious institutional abuse”.

She said Coppin’s High Court case shows that time is “central to the Irish State’s treatment” of survivors of Magdalene laundries and related institutions. 

The State categorises claims like hers as ‘historical’ or ‘legacy’ issues; hangovers from an older Ireland which relied heavily on semi-penal religious institutions to control unmarried pregnant women and their children.

“Mrs Coppin’s injuries are from ‘a different time’, and so she cannot expect to avail of contemporary legal norms or legal processes to press her claims.”

Writing on legal website Opinio Juris, Enright notes: “The people who abused her may be long dead, and Mrs Coppin herself is no longer a helpless teenage girl, but the State, through its lacklustre investigation and redress, continues to debase and degrade her, keeping her original wounds alive.”

Enright said that UNCAT’s decision “suggests that when a child is abused by older people, her claims to investigation and redress will die with her abusers”.

“It is striking that the Committee does not consider how the State’s obligations to investigate acts of torture and degrading treatment, or to facilitate individual complaints, might be pursued otherwise than against an individual living perpetrator.

“Mrs Coppin, after all, was abused by members of religious orders to whom the State delegated key social functions, including the care and control of children. The religious orders who ran the laundries where Mrs Coppin was held still exist in Ireland today.

“The State institutions that funded those orders still exist today. They are possible defendants in any case Mrs Coppin might have been permitted to bring.”

Natasa Mavronicola, Professor of Human Rights Law at Birmingham Law School, also criticised UNCAT’s decision.

“It hurts the survivors whose courageously (re)told trauma is mischaracterised as not being of ‘special gravity’, and denies them full reparation…

“Second, this acceptance upholds and, accordingly, fosters patterns of State denial that can only undermine both reparation for past torture and ill-treatment, and the prevention of such abuse in the future, in Ireland and beyond,” Mavronicola stated.

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