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Three years after Beirut Port explosion: Still no justice

Aug 14,2023 - Last updated at Aug 14,2023

On August 4, 2020, I was bracing for my 53rd wedding anniversary, the first following the death of my wife Eileen, when news broke of a massive explosion in the Port of Beirut. Thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in the port’s grain silos, detonated causing the largest non-nuclear blast in modern times. The death toll was 240, with more than 7,000 injured and 300,000 left homeless.

I was distracted from my personal grief by the horrifying scenes of the explosion and heart-wrenching agony of Lebanese, still in shock, searching for loved ones amidst the rubble of their homes and neighbourhoods. I was moved by the heroism of young Lebanese responding to the humanitarian disaster. Ten months earlier they had filled Beirut’s streets calling for an end to the corrupt, sectarian system that had turned Lebanon’s governance into a bad joke. Now they were assisting relief efforts and offering support and shelter to their compatriots.

When, four days after the blast, French President Emmanuel Macron, and not their own president or prime minister, visited the devastated port neighbourhood, the shock and grief gave way to anger. Their own “leaders” were conspicuous by their absence and their pathetic and transparent efforts to deny responsibility for the circumstances leading up to the explosion. In protest against the government’s failure to respond, some members of parliament resigned. Recognising the public’s loss of confidence, the prime minister eventually resigned as well.

Macron pledged to lead an international effort to secure relief assistance on the condition that the Lebanese make reforms to ensure greater transparency in governance and an end to corruption. When Lebanese saw the same cast of characters who had so miserably failed the country convening to respond to Macron’s call for reforms, they did not know whether to laugh, cry, or be outraged. They knew nothing would change. And nothing did.

While rescue and relief efforts were still underway, some independent-minded members of parliament and civil society leaders petitioned the United Nations to open an investigation into the explosion, a call with widespread public support. In fact, a poll we conducted two years after the blast showed more than nine in 10 Lebanese supporting an independent investigation to determine how and why the explosion occurred and to hold those responsible accountable.

Now, three years after the Port explosion, there is still no accountability or justice, and no response by the international community to the appeal from Lebanese civil society. An investigation by the somewhat independent Lebanese judiciary has been hamstrung by political interference and stonewalling. Ministers and other officials have refused to give testimony, judges who persisted in the inquiry have been removed, and individuals held on suspicion of responsibility have been ordered released, with some leaving the country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) conducted an exhaustive study based on interviews and a document review. Its investigation concludes that several senior Lebanese officials had knowledge and failed to act when warned of the dangers posed by storing the ammonium nitrate in the port. HRW’s report also reveals a pattern of neglect both before and after the blast as the president, prime minister, and other officials sought to delay action, shift blame to subordinates, and choose a path of evasion and impunity over truth and justice.’

The HRW report concludes that “the UN Human Rights Council should immediately authorise an investigation, and other countries should impose targeted sanctions on those implicated in ongoing abuses and efforts to impede justice”. Two years after the report’s issuance, there’s still no action.

And three years after the blast and Macron’s demand for reform, Lebanon is in a worse state than it was before. The parliament will not meet because its members cannot agree on a president. The banking and financial systems are in a state of collapse, with individuals staging armed holdups to withdraw their own money to pay for medical bills. Water, electricity, and medicines are in short supply. Three-quarters of the population are living below the poverty line, while the same corrupt sectarian elites who have paralysed the country continue to play their deadly games. And families of the explosion’s victims and survivors still cry out in grief for answers and justice.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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