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‘Tuam babies’ mass grave allegations must spark urgent investigation

5th June 2014, 17:47:12 UTC

Disturbing revelations about an unmarked “mass grave” of up to 800 babies and children found in Tuam, County Galway, must prompt urgent answers from the Irish Government about the wider issue of past child abuse in religious-run institutions, said Amnesty International today.

“This shocking case needs immediate attention and answers from the Irish Government. A thorough investigation must be carried out into how these children died and if ill-treatment, neglect or other human rights abuses factored into their deaths. We also need to know why these children were not afforded the respect of a proper and dignified burial,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International.

Irish and international media have reported that the remains of 796 babies and children were found in a septic tank in Tuam. The site, on the grounds of an institution run by a religious order of nuns, was operated as a ‘home’ for unmarried mothers, reportedly between 1925 and 1961,at a time when bearing a child outside marriage carried significant social stigma. Reports suggest that a local historian compiled information on the remains, and it was brought it to the attention of the Irish Government last year.

“The Irish Government must not view this and other cases as merely historic and beyond its human rights obligations,” said John Dalhuisen.

The international human rights framework of law emerged during the period in which these children lived and died. If the home closed in 1961, it is possible that some of the deaths occurred at a time when the European Convention on Human Rights was in force. Even before then, Ireland was aware of the internationally agreed norms expected of it in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“As disturbing as the ‘Tuam babies’ case is, it must not be viewed in isolation. The Irish authorities must look into possible allegations of ill-treatment of women and children in other so-called ‘mother and baby homes’ and other institutions run by the state or religious authorities – any further allegations of abuse must be met with independent and thorough investigations,” said Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director, Amnesty International Ireland.

Colm O'Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland

“We note media reports that a cross-departmental examination of these homes may have been established by the Government. Any such process must have – or be quickly followed by a process with – the necessary hallmarks of independence, effectiveness and transparency.”

The past abuse of women and girls in the religious-run ‘Magdalene laundries’ has gained media and political attention, especially since the UN Committee Against Torture raised concern in 2011 at allegations the ill-treatment of women and girls in those institutions.

But the Irish Government’s response to that Committee’s call for an independent investigation into the allegations has been minimalist. The ‘interdepartmental committee’ established by the government in 2011 failed to meet the state’s obligations and must not be used as a model for investigations into this and other past abuses.

Amnesty International recognises that the 2009 government-established Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (“the Ryan Commission”), and the resulting statutory compensation scheme, went a long way towards ensuring accountability for past human rights violations in religious-run institutions. However the Ryan Commission’s remit did not extend to all such institutions or abuses.

“The ‘Tuam babies’ case is another example why the Ryan Commission did not go far enough. It highlights the need for Ireland to deal comprehensively with its past, and, where, institutional human rights abuses are found, provide victims with truth, justice and reparation ,” said Colm O’Gorman.


States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right of victims of human rights violations to an effective remedy. This obligation includes three elements:

  • Truth: establishing the facts about violations of human rights that occurred in the past;
  • Justice: investigating past violations and, if enough admissible evidence is gathered, prosecuting the suspected perpetrators;
  • Reparation: providing full and effective reparation to the victims and their families, in its five forms: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.

The children whose remains have been unearthed in Tuam lived and died during the time in which the international human rights legal framework emerged. If the home closed in 1961, it is possible that some of the deaths occurred after the European Convention on Human Rights came into force. Even before then, Ireland was aware of the internationally agreed norms expected of it in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Also many norms such as the prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment were considered binding on all States as customary law and peremptory norms.Such norms were therefore applicable in cases of children resident in institutions in periods pre-dating the ECHR and other human rights conventions.

The principle of ‘due diligence’ provides that where the State’s authorities knew or ought to have known of likely or actual violations of human rights, and failed to take appropriate steps to prevent the violations and/or investigate and punish the perpetrator(s), then the State bears responsibility for the violation.

So even where religious-run institutions would be viewed as non-state actors, the State is responsible for violations committed by those institutions not only where the State has been directly complicit, but also where the institution in question was exercising a public function, and/or where the State had failed to exercise due diligence in the prevention or investigation of likely or actual human rights violations of which the State had knowledge or ought to have had knowledge, and/or in any other circumstances as prescribed by domestic law or international human rights treaties to which Ireland is a party.