Human rights watchdog calls for more oversight on Covid-19 policing powers
More data needed to assess if Garda powers ‘are being exercised proportionately’
Gardaí stop and question people at a checkpoint on O’Connell Street in Dublin. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
The State’s human rights watchdog has called for more oversight on whether policing powers given to the Garda during the coronavirus crisis “are being exercised proportionately”.
Under emergency legislation introduced to slow the spread of the disease, also known as Covid-19, gardaí can direct people more than 2km from where they live to return home, and non-compliance can be punished by a fine of up to €2,500 or six months in jail.
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) said “more information is required to assess whether these new powers are being exercised proportionately, and whether they are being implemented in line with human rights and equality principles”.
“The commission believes that more detailed data is required to consider how the implementation of this legislation is impacting people in different sectors of society.”
While the Garda publish figures on how many arrests have been made under the powers, more extensive data, for example on how often they have been invoked to force someone to return home, is not available.
Tony Geoghegan, the acting chief commissioner of IHREC, said he wanted more data made available, for example on where checkpoints are being set up. “One would like to see that it’s not just focused in a particular area of disadvantage, that they are being used equitably across the State,” he said.
“It’s in recognition of the enormity of these acts, and the requirement in a democratic society that there is sufficient oversight of them,” he said. “We are in uncharted waters, these are unprecedented powers that have been set out on everybody.”
The watchdog is also calling for direct parliamentary oversight of how emergency powers are being exercised across the State, either through a dedicated human rights committee, or an enhanced role for the Oireachtas justice committee.
Following a meeting on Friday night, IHREC recommended “as a matter of urgency, the establishment of a mechanism to provide close parliamentary oversight of the implementation of emergency legislation”.
A review of the powers published last week by the Policing Authority found that the Garda “fully understands the temporary and exceptional nature of the new powers” and that their use be “appropriately and fully recorded”. It said, however, that a “more settled and complete information base” was needed about how the powers are being used. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has also called for minimal use of the new powers.
IHREC said it plans to write to Garda Commissioner Drew Harris in the coming days about the matter. Mr Geoghegan also called for more detailed data to be published on who is falling ill with Covid-19, including vulnerable cohorts such as minorities, or the homeless, to inform policy responses. “The more data we have, the better information it gives us to target resources,” he said.
IHREC said the Covid-19 crisis is “already impacting, and will continue to impact, different people more acutely than others, including older people, people with disabilities, residents in direct provision, Travellers, homeless people, people experiencing domestic violence and people in precarious employment.”