Justice for the Beirut blast can help avert Lebanon’s collapse

Holding the Lebanese political elite to account can be the first step towards the country’s recovery.

Protesters lift placards depicting the victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast
Protesters lift placards depicting the victims of the 2020 Beirut port blast during a march near the Lebanese capital's harbour on August 4, 2023, marking the third anniversary of the deadly explosion [AFP/Joseph Eid]

The explosion on August 4, 2020 in the Port of Beirut devastated the Lebanese capital, killing more than 230 people, wounding over 7,000, and causing extensive damage to homes, hospitals, schools and shops. It is one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in recent memory.

Three years later, those responsible are yet to be held to account, as the Lebanese political elite continues to actively sabotage the investigation and legal process launched in the aftermath of the incident. Victims and their families are not only not getting justice for what has happened to them, but they are also struggling to recover from the blast amid a crippling economic crisis made worse by that same elite.

Since 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost some 98 percent of its value compared to the United States dollar, triggering triple-digit inflation, spreading poverty and hunger, and resulting in a wave of emigration. According to a World Bank study, this is the result of a deliberate depression orchestrated by the country’s political elite. The crisis is possibly one of the top three most severe economic collapses the world has seen since the 1850s.

The state of the Lebanese economy and the fact that there remains insufficient investigation into the Port of Beirut explosion both arise from a system of impunity that ravages Lebanon. An international investigation into the explosion would be the first significant step in holding Lebanese authorities accountable and giving people concrete hope in the midst of the endless suffering they have been subjected to.

A new impetus for justice has to come from outside because the local legal proceedings have stalled. The lead investigator into the blast, Judge Tarek Bitar, has been repeatedly obstructed by public prosecutors protecting the authorities charged with crimes related to the explosion.

In January, the investigation was suspended for a fifth time since it began. The Beirut Bar Association, the Lebanese Judges Association and Lebanon’s Coalition for the Independence of the Judiciary have all criticised the obstructions of justice, as has Margaret Satterthwaite, the United Nations special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, and other legal experts.

In March, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for an urgent and “serious investigation into the explosion of August 2020 … without political interference or further delay”.

Right after that statement, Australia along with 37 other countries called on the Lebanese authorities to ensure the national investigation was independent and transparent. However, appealing to the Lebanese political elite to do something is pointless since these are the same people who are implicated in the blast and the collapse of the economy and wield extraordinary degrees of unchecked power.

Understanding this reality, on this third anniversary of the blast, more than 350 individuals and organisations in and outside Lebanon, including a large number of victims, issued an open letter in support of a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council that would authorise an independent investigation into the Port of Beirut explosion. Indeed, such a fact-finding mission is the only way to push the accountability process forward.

Some may be sceptical about its potential for success, pointing at the controversial Special Tribunal for Lebanon which was established to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. The tribunal was authorised by the UN Security Council, partly paid for by the Lebanese government, and lacked local legitimacy.

By contrast, the proposed fact-finding mission into the Beirut blast would be more effective because it would enjoy wider international support given that the UN Human Rights Council is more representative than the UN Security Council. The investigation would also cost the Lebanese government nothing and would have local legitimacy, as members of victims’ families, local organisations and more than 40 members of parliament have repeatedly called for such an international mission.

International human rights law is inherently part of Lebanon’s constitutional order. Therefore, a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission would support Judge Bitar’s investigation through the Lebanese judicial system.

The blast has significant international dimensions that further warrant an international investigation. The ammonium nitrate that ignited and caused the explosion was going from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut and take on extra cargo. The ship arrived in Beirut in November 2013 but never left, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees, stranded seafarers, and ship defects. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.

It is suspected that the amount of ammonium nitrate that blew up at Beirut port last year was one-fifth of the shipment unloaded there in 2013 and that much of the cargo had been transferred to Syria to be used in explosives deployed in the civil war.

Citizens of at least 15 other countries died in the Beirut blast; six of these nations are members of the UN Human Rights Council, including Bangladesh, Belgium, France, Germany, Pakistan, and the US. If they seek justice for their citizens, heed demands made by the Lebanese people, show global leadership, and bring forward a resolution for an international investigation, there is a significant chance the entire council would support such an initiative.

Dalal Mouawad, a Lebanese journalist, captured what is at stake behind a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into the explosion when she stated during an interview for the British Channel 4: “If there’s no accountability and justice … if this crime goes unpunished, that’s it, it’s the end [for Lebanon].”

If the UN Human Rights Council does not take action, it would allow Lebanon to collapse. It would be a moral failure that would have devastating consequences not only for the Lebanese people but also for the whole region, if not the whole world. That is why, it is in everyone’s interest to seek and demand justice in Lebanon.

Michael Fakhri writes in his personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.