The Beirut explosion: a call for global investigation

Image from Rashid Khreiss/Unsplash; Graphic by Rachael Millar

By Louisa Campbell

On the 4th of August 2020 a deadly explosion occurred in Beirut, Lebanon. The UN have acknowledged the suffering of this event, especially given the context of Lebanon’s current economic crisis and the global conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this response, it remains contested as to how effective investigations surrounding the explosion have been.

The blast was the biggest in Beirut’s history, killing 172 people, injuring 6000 and leaving 250,000 homeless. The explosion was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored at Beirut’s port without the needed safety precautions. Immediately after, the UN released a statement outlining that under international human rights law, states are obligated to confront risks posed by hazardous substances. They additionally stressed that such an investigation should be independent and “probe any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities”. The UN’s benchmarks for inquiry highlighted the investigation should be protected from undue influence, focus on systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities and integrate a gender lens.

However, Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun rejected this notion of an international investigation, claiming that it would be a “waste of time”.  Aoun’s initial promise of a transparent investigation has since been heavily criticised for failing to meet shared international standards. Contempt is brewing even more so given that court records leaked to the media revealed that high level officials knew of the stockpile at the port, which had been present for six years, yet ceased to take action.

Whilst government granted internal investigations, these have since garnered criticism from both the international community and Lebanese citizens. Essentially, the long term failures of Lebanon’s judicial system have made any prospects of a credible investigation impossible. The case was referred to the Judicial Council on August the 10th but the judge appointed to head the enquiry, Fadi Sawan, has been accused of representing political corruption. The decision was labelled “an opaque process shrouded in allegations of political interference”, hence the government has further lost public faith and now a renewed call for international investigation is coming from victim’s families.

Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch stated that now, “only an independent international investigation will uncover the truth about the blast”. Majzoub calls for an enquiry that questions the corruption permeating the entire political system, which was arguably responsible for creating the environment in which such a catastrophe was possible.

Now three months since the blast, citizens are beginning to suffer the enduring effects of such a disaster. In particular, the pollutants released by the explosion have caused air contamination. The residents of Beirut have the right to detailed information about the potential health risks posed by this reality.

The Human Rights Watch advised that to rectify this failure, Lebanon should adjust their procedures to comply with principles of a fair trial and grant independence of the judiciary, allowing it to act in separation from government. Urgent assistance from the international community is required, as Lebanon are suffering a deterioration of human rights protection catalysed by this explosion.

The deficit of effective governance in Lebanon has always been present but this explosion has illuminated it and prompted a drive against corruption. Above all, if the calls for a credible investigation are successful, it is imperative that victims and witnesses are protected by privacy and confidentiality. Under international law, they are entitled to a healthy environment and currently they do not have one. Evidently, the proposed independent investigation needs to occur sooner rather than latter to both protect to the civilians of Beirut and hold the Lebanese government accountable for their weak response. 

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