A week ago I could smell smoke in the air. Sirens blared. At my child’s school, people rushed to gather clothing, sleeping bags, and cash to help those affected by the fire. People were in shock.
One week on, my neighborhood in London remains deeply affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster. Seventy-nine people are dead or missing. That number is expected to rise. Hundreds of others were lucky to escape with their lives, but are now homeless.
In interviews with Grenfell Tower survivors and victims’ families, one word comes up again and again: justice. Human rights can help make justice possible.
The UK’s Human Rights Act puts a duty on public authorities – local and central government – to ensure that they safeguard people’s rights including, crucially, the right to life. The UK’s duty under international law to secure the right to housing is also relevant since it requires the “physical safety of occupants” to be guaranteed.
What does this duty under the Human Rights Act mean in practice?
First, the government must take reasonable steps to protect the lives of people at similar risk of deadly fire. That means urgent safety inspections of all high-rise blocks in the UK, especially public housing, and acting on the recommendations of an coroner’s inquest in 2013 into a deadly fire in London in 2009, including retrofitting sprinklers to high rise blocks.
Second, the government must ensure effective independent investigations into the causes of the deaths in the fire, with appropriate remedies, including criminal accountability, compensation for victims, and necessary changes to laws and policies.
The government has announced a public inquiry into the fire, and promised that the Grenfell Tower residents will be given legal aid funding to participate. That commitment is important.
Yet legal aid cuts have severely curbed the ability of people living in poverty to secure their rights in the civil courts. The Grenfell Tower tenants’ action group claims that the cuts left them unable to pursue their previous concerns about fire safety in the block through the courts. The public inquiry should look specifically at whether an absence of legal remedies for Grenfell Tower residents contributed to the failure to address those complaints.
Christos Fairbairn told journalists he tripped over bodies as he escaped the building, saying: “I will never forget what happened.”
Human rights can play an important role in making sure that public authorities are not allowed to forget either.