Following the Grenfell tragedy, human rights empower us

by Virginia Bras-Gomes, chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Published: 20 Aug 2018

Our home is far more than just a shelter, however important that may be to many of the world’s homeless people. It is the place where we feel physically safe and emotionally nurtured – at peace.

Nothing could be further from the truth for those who lived and lost their lives in the Grenfell tragedy.

The right to safe housing

In 2016, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which I currently chair, raised serious concerns about a number of issues related to non-compliance by the UK Government with its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights:

  • a lack of social housing
  • substandard housing
  • the disproportionate impact of the austerity measures on certain groups
  • barriers to accessing justice

Safe housing is an essential part of the right to an adequate standard of living enshrined in the treaty.

In her statement a couple of months later, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing referred to Grenfell as a ‘devastating illustration of the impact of substandard housing on the lives of poor people’, reminding us of the terrible consequences of failing to meet and uphold international human rights standards. Survivors of the Grenfell disaster are rights-holders under human rights law.

Human rights, discrimination and participation

Respecting the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, and complying with universal human rights standards now and in the future, is essential to address the tragedy and injustice of Grenfell, and to prevent another similar catastrophe in the UK.

Human rights reflect basic human needs; they establish the essential standards without which people cannot live with dignity. Examples of rights affected by the Grenfell disaster include freedom from discrimination, the right to life, and the right to adequate and safe housing. These rights are included in international human rights treaties that the UK has committed to uphold.

Human rights reflect basic human needs

The UK has a strong legal framework to prevent discrimination. If enacted, the socio-economic duty established in the Equality Act 2010, which requires public bodies to take steps to address inequalities that result from differences in occupation, education, place of residence or social class, can go a long way in mitigating the living conditions of residents in settings like Grenfell Tower and avoiding similar situations.

Meaningful participation of people in decision-making processes on matters affecting them is crucial – no matter whether those decisions are made by Government, public bodies or private management companies. Participation is also a fundamental human rights principle, and essential in holding those responsible to account.

I was fortunate to be at a meeting between the Special Rapporteur and Grenfell survivors earlier this year. Beyond the pain and the anxiety, one of the strong messages repeated by many of them was the need to be heard and for their experience of lived injustices to be meaningfully taken into account in future Government decisions.

Catalysing change

My committee would not be able to hold governments to account against their human rights obligations without the crucial engagement of national human rights institutions and civil society organisations.

We need your support in drawing our attention to issues of concern that are not being adequately tackled year after year, and providing us with information to assess the human rights situation in your country.

Your help in sharing and promoting our messages is of critical importance. To catalyse change and shift states’ policies, UN committees like my own must continue to work in close cooperation with civil society and social movements.

The challenge is to connect the powerless with the empowering potential of human rights

Building on the committee’s ongoing collaboration with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, I am delighted to launch a series of briefings on human rights issues relating to the Grenfell tragedy.

The briefings are intended to build awareness and knowledge of human rights and how they apply in the context of the Grenfell disaster and its aftermath. We want to support you all, especially the survivors, in using human rights as a lever to achieve justice and build a safer future.

The common theme underlying experiences of deprivation is one of powerlessness; the challenge is to connect the powerless with the empowering potential of human rights. To this end, we hope you find these briefings of significant practical value.


Virginia Bras-Gomes is chair of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Find out more about our work

We will publish one briefing each month, starting with the right to life. The briefings, and further information on our work following the Grenfell inquiry will be available on our Following Grenfell pages.

If you have any queries on human rights in relation to the Grenfell Tower fire, please contact email our Grenfell project team.