• David Rutherford is Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission.
As a human rights commissioner with a background in the building industry, the tragedy of the Grenfell Towers gripped me. I wondered, how does the state meet its human rights obligation to keep people alive and safe in buildings here in New Zealand? How does our building and construction industry meet its human rights responsibilities to keep people alive and safe?
In googling "aluminium composite material New Zealand [ACM]" I found Thermosash, a company that epitomises a business taking its human rights responsibilities seriously.
Thermosash has taken the decision to primarily use fire-rated ACM products rather than non-fire rated products on external building facades.
This is because, despite the non-fire rated version being allowed to be used externally in New Zealand, it believes that it isn't appropriate and has the potential to threaten lives inside a building and outside the building if there is a fire.
It is a company that doesn't just accept the compliance standard and comply, but rather asks whether the standard adequately protects people. There is no science in my singling out Thermosash, other businesses may have taken the same stand, but some others will not have.
Their approach is exactly that expected of responsible businesses under the UN's guiding principles on business and human rights. It is the approach companies working with the Human Rights Commission on ethical sourcing are taking. Importantly, it is the approach demanded by responsible investors around the world.
The day following the Grenfell fire, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing made the following statement:
"If it is the case that the fire, and its severity, was caused by structural or mechanical inadequacies, international human rights law has something to say. The right to adequate housing under international law requires that every home be 'habitable', which would include ensuring adequate protections against fire, and adequate infrastructure to resolve fires quickly and with as little destruction and damage as possible. This is one of several standards [such as affordability, security of tenure, access to services] that must be upheld in order to ensure a person's right to housing is being met.
"These standards are established because of the intimate connection between human survival and housing. Where housing does not meet adequacy standards, as the Grenfell Tower fire so clearly indicates, people's lives and their security are at real risk. International human rights law applies to all levels of government, who must ensure that private enterprises, as well as individuals including landlords, meet these standards."
Ministers and ministries are obliged to protect lives and provide adequate housing. By signing international human rights treaties, successive New Zealand governments have promised to do so, repeatedly, since 1948. What goes on tour, in this case, does not stay on tour. It comes home.
The state must meet its legal obligations to all New Zealanders. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and its responsible ministers have two critical obligations here.
The first is to outlaw the use of non-fire rated ACM cladding in high rise buildings. This is currently being considered and there are investigations under way into how much has been used in our buildings before changes made earlier in 2017.
The second obligation is to make procurement changes, which the ministry can do within the current review of government procurement guidelines. The current guidelines require compliance with "international obligations", but few using them would understand that those obligations included human rights obligations. Procurement decisions, including those of our Government, continue to be made based upon which bid has the lowest cost.
The human rights of everyone in the supply chain - from workers who make product, to consumers who buy product - must be factored into procurement decisions. That is a binding obligation on the state and an obligation that responsible businesses should be meeting as well. All New Zealanders need to tell the ministry that the value of people's lives needs to be given greater weight than value for money, particularly when it comes to potentially life-saving external cladding.
The Government and all businesses should be including compliance with human rights obligations into their procurement policies. It should also be part of the procurement policies of property owners and developers. Not doing so is a recipe for disaster.
Compliance with the regulations is not a get-out-of-jail-free card from a human rights perspective. Responsible businesses and responsible governments do the right thing by people who could be harmed if they did not do the right thing. They value human life.