Beirut blast investigation needs a new approach

Mired in legal and political quicksand, the probe could benefit from independent fact finders

Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags during protests near the site of the blast that killed more than 220 people and injured thousands more. Reuters
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The blast at Beirut's port that devastated a large section of Lebanon’s capital three years ago did not discriminate among the country’s different communities. It killed more than 220 people, injured thousands more and is regarded as one of the glaring results of decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Ordinarily, gross negligence of the kind that caused the explosion – in this case a failure to secure a large stock of ammonium nitrate, a volatile chemical – would result in hefty fines and custodial sentences for those responsible. Instead, the investigation into the one of the world’s strongest non-nuclear blasts has stalled amid legal wrangling and accusations of political interference – much of it a symptom of sectarian horse-trading and political deal-making among the country’s elites.

This has not gone unnoticed internationally. In March this year, 38 states that belong to the UN Human Rights Council called for the independence of the Lebanese judiciary to be protected and for a “swift, independent, impartial, credible and transparent investigation into the explosion” to take place. It may be the case that such international concern needs to be translated into action if the investigation is to be rescued from the legal and bureaucratic quicksand it finds itself in.

There is a way to do so. Victims’ families, survivors’ groups, civil society, NGOs and some Lebanese MPs have called for impartial outside organisations to help kick-start the probe. The European Parliament this week called for an independent, international fact-finding mission into the blast, and it is within the power of the UNHRC to set up a team to uncover evidence about the case that could move it forward.

The purpose of this approach would not be to subvert Lebanese justice or sovereignty, but rather to support them. A fact-finding mission unencumbered by political complications or agendas has a greater chance of finding new evidence or creating fresh leads than the status quo. There is a precedent for Lebanon accepting such involvement – the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon that opened in 2009 is an international investigative body that seeks to apply Lebanese criminal law to the case of Rafic Hariri, the former prime minister who was assassinated by Hezbollah militants in 2005.

Lebanon’s serious political and economic problems make the idea of an outside investigative body more urgent. Many of the country’s vital institutions are misfiring. Lebanon has been without a president for nearly eight months, with its divided parliament failing to elect a successor to Michel Aoun in 12 attempts. The government is a caretaker one. The head of the army, Gen Joseph Aoun, is scheduled for mandatory retirement but under Lebanese law his replacement is supposed to be appointed by the president. In addition, the central bank is being run on an interim basis following the departure of its discredited governor, Riad Salameh, as a president is needed to appoint his successor.

The fact that thousands of families are still waiting for justice is intolerable. Although no compensation can replace the loss of a loved one, or the trauma of losing a home due to the explosion, bringing accountability to such a profound calamity is the least survivors and relatives deserve. This is an issue that cuts across sectarian divides and although it has thus far failed to shake Lebanon’s institutions and elites out of their inertia, the fact remains that three years waiting for justice is three too many. It is time for a new approach.

Published: August 04, 2023, 3:00 AM