Access to information is a human right. It helps to ensure access to all other rights.
In 1946, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that included “freedom of information is a fundamental human right and the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated”.
It has also explained that the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right, includes the right to seek, receive and impart information.
When information is available and accessible to the public, it can be a catalyst for people to get involved in decision-making and in making human rights a living reality. That principle has been followed ever since.
If the state and state actors such as An Garda Síochána are to protect and respect the human rights of all, they too must understand their obligations and assess whether they are meeting them.
Only reliable quantitative and qualitative data – in other words statistics or accounts and descriptions of events – will help answer those questions. Only if they are made freely available to the public, will they be believed.
Also, data must be broken down to assess whether everyone’s rights are protected equally. It is often alleged that people from minority ethnic backgrounds are subjected to the use of police powers disproportionately.
There is certainly evidence from within those communities that suggests they are subjected to a disproportionate use of police powers. That must be taken seriously and explored further.
Unless and until the question is asked and evidence sought to prove or disprove it no one can make a definitive assessment. Speculation and theory will be substituted for objective criticism, which is not healthy for democracy or for An Garda Síochána.
Gardaí should themselves want to know the answer if they are serious about delivering services that do not discriminate unlawfully. Thereafter, the public are entitled to know the answer and to hold them to account.
Evictions and Protest
This is also relevant in the debate around An Garda Síochána’s role, if any, in evictions and its tactics for managing public order and protest – which has kicked off an understandable call for more information.
Information is powerful. With it, the public can better understand what the police do and can play their part in policing.
The public are entitled to have their concerns addressed, not through remote or general press statements, but by the willing and ongoing publication of information together with detailed answers to questions.
Not only are the public entitled to know if gardaí do assist in evictions, they are entitled to know the parameters within which they operate.
At the moment in public-order operations, the framework within which the Garda operate is entirely hidden from the public – as I noted in the recent Irish Council for Civil Liberties report “A Human Rights-Based Approach to Policing in Ireland”.
The Garda public-order command policy, which is posted on its website, is general. It doesn’t contain information to help the public understand what is likely to happen in any public-order operation. Operational guidance or directions, which might shed more light, have not been published.
Neither have statistics been published on the use of force. A concern had been raised about the use of pepper spray by gardaí, but save for a snapshot of usage over a limited period of time, provided by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), it is impossible to assess whether there is cause for concern or not.
To compound the matter, GSOC does not publish information on complaints arising out of public-order operations or from the use of force.
That can be compared to the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI’s) approach, which is to publish its Conflict Management Manual, a document that stretches to 359 pages, and is laid out in a way that makes it easy to explore.
The manual sets out in significant detail the PSNI’s policy on and approach to every aspect of public-order policing. The list is lengthy.
It includes: operational strategy; planning; community engagement; media strategy; public-order tactics; record keeping; reporting; and the use of force.
For those who want to read even more, the Northern Ireland Policing Board’s human rights annual reports have information on particular public-order and protest operations.
Also published are comprehensive quarterly and annual statistics on, for example: crime rates and outcomes; hate crime; domestic abuse; powers to stop and search; deployment and use of force, which are broken down to identify whether there is disproportionate use against any particular group or in any particular area.
Furthermore, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland produces an annual report that sets out, in detail, the number of allegations and complaints, including the circumstances giving rise to complaints.
It provides statistics on, for example, the number of complaints arising from encounters on the street, in a domestic setting, from the use of force or as a result of public-order tactics.
So people can see clearly how many complaints arise from public-order operations, for example, as a result of the use of force or, indeed, as a result of gardaí attending alongside an eviction.
Such information enables the public to consider and debate. It allows them to hold the police to account and, critically, to ensure their own participation in policing. That is an example of the transparency required for a human-rights-compliant service.
It can be tempting to downgrade the collection and provision of information as an administrative task, to see them as a bunch of figures divorced from the delivery or reality of human rights – an “unnecessary bureaucracy”. That couldn’t be more wrong.
Back in the 18th century, the writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked, “It has been said that figures rule the world. Maybe. But I’m sure figures show us whether it is being ruled well or badly.”
The same could be said for the Garda Síochána and its protection of human rights. They could be protected well or badly. But, as yet, it’s impossible to tell.
We need not wait for the outworking of the reform process. We don’t need legislation or structural changes for this – just a greater willingness to be transparent.