UN body calls for wider access to mother and baby homes redress

Human rights committee says criminal sanctions in abortion law should be removed

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has called on the Government to widen access to mother and baby homes redress, saying it should remove “all barriers” to the scheme.

In a wide-ranging report on Wednesday, the international group of human rights experts also called for criminal sanctions to be removed from Ireland’s abortion laws.

After reviewing how the State implements the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN body expressed concern about the scope of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and said efforts to tackle hate speech should be intensified.

Although the committee welcomed efforts to address and memorialise institutional abuse in Ireland, it called for broader access to State redress and said the Government should rectify “alleged omissions” in the inquiries into the homes.


The redress scheme proposed by Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has been criticised for excluding people who were in homes for fewer than six months and those who had been “boarded out”. Critics have questioned why recipients of redress payments should be required to sign waivers preventing them taking any further court action against the State.

“What the committee calls on the Irish Government to do is to recognise violations of human rights of all victims in all the institutions,” said Vasilka Sancin, a Slovenian academic who is vice-chair of the UN committee.

“The committee does express its serious concern about all the barriers to access effective remedy including various requirements to sign the waivers that you mention,” she told a press conference. “We don’t think that this is appropriate and call on the State party not to enforce this in practice in order to really ensure effective remedy to all the victims of this regrettable practices that were identified.”

The committee noted the “alleged failure” of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes to “thoroughly and effectively” investigate all abuse allegations. The “limited number” of Garda investigations and the lack of prosecutions for the rights violations were also noted.

“We call on the State party to really introduce proper investigation in all such cases and where still possible prosecute any found guilty, punish the perpetrators. So indeed we have found some deficiencies and call on the State party to act on this,” it said.

The committee welcomed repeal of the constitutional ban on abortion but said it regretted that law on the termination of pregnancy made it a crime to aid or abet abortion outside the terms of the legislation.

It expressed concern at measures that subject women to a mandatory three-day waiting period before an abortion. Measures requiring two doctors to find that a foetus was not likely to survive beyond 28 days after birth left “many women forced to continue with pregnancies” with foetal abnormalities, it said.

Photini Pazartzis, the Greek professor of international law who chairs the committee, noted “positive developments” in Irish abortion law. “What seems to be left now is the context of removing all form of criminal sanctions to especially for example medical service providers who assist women and girls in these procedures,” she told reporters.

“So what the committee is now looking for – if you wish – at this stage after the State has adopted more open legislation concerning these issues is to also take other measures to guarantee access – effective access – especially to women which are in regions far away or to vulnerable areas. Those are the two issues I wanted to address.”

On Covid-19 restrictions, the committee said it “remains concerned” about reports that the rights to freedom of movement and peaceful assembly “significantly and disproportionately reduced” during the pandemic.

“The State party should consider undergoing a comprehensive review of its response to Covid-19, including a human rights impact assessment that evaluates the effect of rights restrictions, specifically in regard to minority groups.”

The group went on to express concern about the rate of Covid-related deaths in nursing homes, exacerbated by the collective living arrangements in long-term institutional care. Reports about younger people with disabilities being accommodated in nursing homes were a further source of anxiety.

“The State party should continue its efforts to carry out a comprehensive review of the regulatory and protection framework for social care services to ensure the older and structurally vulnerable communities have adequate protection and support,” the committee said.

“It should also put measures in place to guarantee the inspection mechanisms are adequate, independent, supported by a human rights framework, and incorporate all public, voluntary, and private health and social care providers.”

The committee called for greater efforts to combat hate speech and incitement to discrimination. It called for an improvement in “data collection” and “effective measures” to prevent and sanction both online and offline hate speech.

“Concerning reports of increases in hate crime and discriminatory incidents, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the committee recommended that Ireland redouble its efforts to combat hate speech and incitement to discrimination or violence based on race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.”

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times