Lebanon: corrupt government fails victims of the Beirut blast
Ever since an explosion ravaged the port of Beirut in August 2020, Lebanese politicians have obstructed the course of investigations: they clearly fear being held responsible for the neglect and corruption that enabled one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. The Lebanese government has failed the victims and survivors of the explosion in multiple ways, from not recognising the real death toll to not delivering the agreed compensation and health support. The scale of corruption and impunity requires an international investigation to respond to the demands of bereaved families and injured and disabled survivors.
It’s been over a year and a half since one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history ripped through Beirut’s port area, taking the lives of at least 219 people and injuring thousands. But for bereaved relatives and survivors, the dust of the Beirut blast is yet to settle. And it won’t do so unless those responsible are finally held to account.
To date, not a single politician or public official has been found responsible for playing any part in the decision to store a huge, deadly and decaying stockpile of ammonium nitrate for several years at the capital’s port, located in a heavily populated area.
Impunity is deeply rooted in Lebanon’s broken governance system, a legacy of the 1975-1990 civil war. For decades, a self-serving political elite has got away with mismanagement and corruption. But the scale of the blast was such that for many people it was a tipping point: if forced them to start actively questioning corruption and impunity. They started calling on judges to hold those culpable to account, including political leaders – but those leaders have reacted by doing everything they could to undermine the judges investigating the explosion.
Corruption under the spotlight
Lebanon’s entrenched leadership hardly needed another crisis to demonstrate it was utterly out of touch with people’s needs and aspirations. Starting in October 2019, a mass protest movement mobilised calling for the political establishment to stand aside. Initially sparked by the announcement of a new tax on WhatsApp use, the 17 October movement soon encompassed a wide variety of grievances that united people traditionally divided across sectarian lines.
Protests for basic services brought people together who went on to demand fundamental change: once the root causes of the problem were laid bare, people urged the wholesale removal of the political class and the establishment of a new political system to replace long-running sectarian political structures, under which various religious groups and their affiliated political parties share power through a quota system.
While it helped defuse religious conflict, this system proved extremely inefficient, and it provided multiple opportunities for patronage and corruption, which became rampant. The patchwork governments resulting from power-sharing tended towards political deadlock, as epitomised in repeated postponements of parliamentary elections from 2009 until 2018. They presided over epic policy failures, including the government’s inability to offer a coordinated programme to contain a predictable surge of forest fires – see our story.
The scale of the Beirut blast was such that it initially shook even the aloof political elite. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned, denouncing the disaster as the result of ‘endemic corruption’. But then he stayed on as head of a caretaker administration that lasted for more than a year. The failure to put in place a new government until September 2021 further demonstrated the dysfunction embedded in Lebanon’s political system.
Judges under attack
Seeking to shield themselves from prosecution and potential conviction, prominent members of the political elite have repeatedly interfered with the investigation of the blast. A political tug-of-war over the probe was initiated by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, a powerful force in Lebanese politics, which reportedly used Beirut’s port for its own purposes: some even claim it may have been responsible for storing the explosive material that caused the blast.
As a result of multiple pressures, the first judge leading the investigation, Fadi Sawan, was dismissed by the Court of Cassation in February 2021. As soon as he summoned Prime Minister Diab and three former ministers for questioning, two of them asked the court to remove him on the grounds of ‘bias’, an allegation they linked to the fact that his home had been damaged by the explosion.
Tarek Bitar, the second lead investigator, could have experienced a similar fate due to his insistence on questioning the immunity of senior politicians and former and current security heads. Not only did parliament reject his request to lift immunity from its members, but in retaliation for this audacity, he was targeted with at least 16 lawsuits seeking to remove him from the case. As a result, investigations have been suspended four times so far.
Unsurprisingly, Hezbollah was a key driver of the campaign to remove Bitar. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, accused him of politicising the investigation. When a government was finally formed, Nasrallah tried to force the newly appointed authorities to replace Bitar by having Hezbollah representatives boycott cabinet sessions for a month.
As well as putting pressure on the investigation, the boycott further deepened the dysfunction of the government, at a time when an accountable and efficient government was desperately needed to tackle Lebanon’s deepening economic, social and public health crises.
Politicians stoke division
In his attempt to delegitimise Bitar, Nasrallah went so far as to say, in a televised address, that the judge’s ‘recklessness’ was ‘an invitation to the families of the victims to take matters into their own hands.’ Two days later, the streets of Beirut witnessed the worst violence in more than a decade. An anti-Bitar protest called by Hezbollah led to hours-long gun battles between Hezbollah supporters and residents of the Tayouneh neighbourhood, in which at least seven people reportedly died.
This was a particularly disturbing episode given Lebanon’s history of civil conflict and the fragility of peace. Hezbollah’s actions were inflammatory and divisive, seemingly more motivated by political manoeuvring than a genuine concern for accountability.
Unrest also resulted from the prolonged detention of several customs and port officials who had been kept under arrest without conviction for more than a year. Their families mobilised for their release, particularly on the grounds of their deteriorating health condition.
Judges have so far done their best to resist political pressure. In November, three female members of the judiciary resigned in protest at political interference, low pay and poor work conditions. On 25 November, a judge rejected an attempt by former ministers to remove Bitar, enabling him to resume the inquiry after a delay of several months. This is good news for the bereaved families who have supported him and protested each time there were delays in the case.
Survivors and civil society against government neglect
In the meantime, countless survivors continue to suffer the consequences of the explosion without the government properly acknowledging their needs and rights.
The state has disregarded the victims of the explosion in many ways, starting with its failure to even recognise the real death toll. It claims 191 people died, although many more were killed that day and never identified. Aiming to gain full recognition of every victim of the explosion, the Public Source initiative, a Beirut-based independent media organisation, has already identified 60 additional victims and made its records publicly available.
Survivors of the blast also face a battle over their medical bills, as the state has not even covered the costs of life-saving surgery. In December 2020 the government approved Law 196, meant to ensure compensation and health benefits for victims of the blast, but activists have accused it of deliberately creating legal confusion to evade real responsibility. According to critics, victims are enrolled in the bankrupt employer-funded National Social Security Fund, an independent public institution, instead of registered with the Ministry of Public Health, as mandated by Law 196. As a result, those left with a disability due to the explosion are denied the support they are supposed to receive. In reaction to this, they staged a protest on Lebanon’s Independence Day, 22 November 2021.
The fight for medical compensation is one of several battles being fought by blast survivors and international human rights groups. Through their persistence, they are trying to hit the reset button and help create a new culture of accountability in Lebanon.
But the scale of corruption is so big that local community efforts won’t be enough to overcome it. Survivors, families of the victims and Lebanese and international organisations have twice asked the United Nations (UN) to lead an international, independent and impartial investigative mission. Disappointingly, so far the UN has not responded to those demands. Nor has it responded to requests by the Beirut Bar Association, which represents around 2,000 family members and survivors, to help Lebanon’s investigation by sharing vital information it may hold, such as satellite photos taken by UN member states on the day of the explosion.
Experience suggests that the Lebanese government won’t meet its obligations towards the survivors and victims of the blast unless it is forced to. Pressure from the UN as well as public mobilisations supporting the investigation will be vital here. There are still many obstacles for a few brave independent judges to overcome if they are to hold those responsible for the explosion to account, and they need all the help they can get.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Current and former members of the government must stop obstructing the work of independent judges.
The UN should assemble a team to lead an independent and impartial investigation into the blast, as well as contribute any information it may hold to the ongoing local investigation.
Civil society should continue to mobilise across sectarian lines to demand accountability and an end to impunity.
Cover photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images