Government ‘may have failed’ human rights obligations over Grenfell

UN special rapporteur speaks of concern that survivors and local residents had been stereotyped and discriminated against because they lived in social housing.

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The government may have failed to comply with its international human rights obligations over the Grenfell disaster.

Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, has said she was concerned that international human rights standards on housing safety may have been breached, and could have been a factor in the causes thec disaster.

She told The Guardian she was concerned that residents had told her they had been excluded from decisions about housing safety issues before the fire and had not been engaged “in a meaningful way” by the authorities about their views and needs in its aftermath.

Farha was  was in London this week on an informal visit to meet Grenfell survivors and local residents, at the invitation of human rights law academics and activists.

She said she had been struck by survivors’ “feelings of not being heard, of feeling invisible, and not being treated like equal human beings”.

“I’m concerned when I have residents saying to me they feel they are not being heard and that they are not always being treated like human beings. Those are the fundamentals of human rights: voice, dignity, and participation in solutions to their own situations.”

Safety standards in the tower – from the types of cladding used on the building to electrical circuits and ease of access to the building for fire and rescue vehicles – may have breached residents’ human rights to safe and secure housing, she said.

Although she did not meet ministers this week Farha said she was keen to “start a conversation”  and may write a formal letter to the UK government setting out her concerns.

Farha, who said her visit was not to make a formal assessment of Grenfell, said she was concerned that survivors and local residents had been stereotyped and discriminated against on the basis that they lived in social housing. This meant they may have been treated less as people with human rights, and more as objects of charity.

Residents told me they feel the government’s position is that they should feel lucky that they are going to be rehoused and that they should feel lucky that they had social housing. That doesn’t suggest residents feel the government recognises them as rights holders.

“The fact that so many residents have said to me they are not being treated as human beings is suggestive of a society that is structured in a way where those in social housing are viewed perhaps as counting less. And that is deeply troubling.”

Farha questioned whether this may have influenced the decision to fit the tower with cheaper cladding that turned out to be flammable, reportedly to save £300,000.

“If the population wasn’t viewed as somehow undeserving, as really lucky to receive the benevolence of state support for housing, if they were viewed as rights holders, I just wonder if that same decision would have been made,” she said.

Farha said she did not want to imply the UK government had done nothing in the wake of Grenfell. It had done a great deal, she said. It was important that ministers had set up an inquiry, she said, even if it appeared to be moving slowly and was not as wide in scope as it could have been.

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