One year later, a HRW report examines how Lebanese authorities were responsible for one of the world's largest non-nuclear explosions that killed over 200 people and wounded 7,000.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has produced an extensive investigation providing evidence to incriminate senior Lebanese officials in last year’s devastating explosion at Beirut port.
HRW’s investigation into the blast was detailed in a 127-page report titled ‘They Killed US from the Inside’, which called for an international probe in light of a stalled domestic inquiry.
218 people were killed, nearly 7,000 wounded and over 300,000 displaced after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate ignited in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history on August 4, 2020. It wrecked over half the city and caused an estimated $3.8-4.6 billion in material damage.
“The evidence overwhelmingly shows that the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port was caused by the actions and omissions of senior Lebanese officials who failed to accurately communicate the dangers posed by the ammonium nitrate, knowingly stored the material in unsafe conditions, and failed to protect the public,” said Lama Fakih, HRW’s Crisis and Conflict Director.
“A year later, the scars of that devastating day remain etched in the city, while survivors and families of the victims await answers.”
The report drew upon official correspondences and ten interviews conducted with government, security, and judicial officials to outline the arrival of the ammonium nitrate on Moldovan ship the Rhosus in late 2013 and its storage at the port.
Evidence accumulated by HRW suggested Lebanon’s leadership right at the top, including President Michel Aoun and then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab, were informed of the risks posed by the hazardous material.
“Year after year, nothing was done to eliminate the threat,” Fakih said at an online conference on Tuesday, which TRT World was present at as the rights group presented its findings from the report.
Fakih emphasised what happened on the day of the explosion cannot be seen as an aberration.
“[It] was the natural consequence of a system rooted in corruption and impunity,” she told reporters. “The general inefficiency, mismanagement and political malfeasance that has plagued the Beirut port for decades all contributed to the devastating blast.”
While much has been said of corruption at the port, little has been done to combat it.
The report was not able to conclusively identify what triggered the explosion.
Failings of the domestic investigation
The HRW investigation chronicles the evidence of omissions and actions of officials that allowed for a potentially explosive compound to be haphazardly stored at hangar 12 siloed away for six years in a densely populated area.
It said the very design of the port’s management structure “maximised opacity” and “allowed corruption and mismanagement to flourish.”
No ministerial bodies nor security agencies operating in the port took apparent steps to secure the material, nor did they establish an appropriate emergency response plan or precautionary measures in the event of a disaster.
Even after the General Directorate of State Security - an executive agency of the Higher Defence Council (HDC) - investigated the ammonium nitrate at the port, Fakih said there was an “unconscionable delay” in reporting the threat to senior officials.
A confidential source told HRW that State Security was informed as early as September 2019 about the ammonium nitrate by a customs official. It came after no action was taken to resolve the issue despite repeated warnings dating back to 2014.
HRW said the explosion resulted in human rights abuses such as violations of the right to life, the rights to education and an adequate standard of living. At a minimum, authorities were “criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the cargo,” creating an unreasonable risk to life, it said.
A year since the blast, a national investigation has stalled thanks to “a range of procedural and systemic flaws” that have rendered any probe “incapable of credibly delivering justice.”
“Instead, we have documented Lebanese officials delaying obstructing and the investigation, and a lack of respect for fair trial standards and due process,” HRW’s Lebanon researcher Aya Majzoub said in yesterday’s press conference.
While only lower-level officials have ended up being detained thus far, senior officials who knew of the ammonium nitrate being stored at the port “had a responsibility to act to secure and remove it, and failed to do so,” Majzoub added.
HRW said President Aoun admitted he was aware of the material at the port since at least July 21, 2020, and had asked an advisor to follow up, but claimed he wasn’t responsible. Nor did he call for a meeting of the HDC to discuss the State Security’s findings.
Caretaker PM Diab told HRW he was not aware of how explosive ammonium nitrate was until after the blast.
Calls for a UN probe
One of the main reasons that domestic investigations have been stymied is due to various types of immunities applicable to parliamentarians and state employees in Lebanon, which victims’ families and rights groups believe has obstructed lead investigator Judge Tarek Bitar from interrogating senior political and security officials.
As a result, HRW has asked for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish a one-year fact-finding mission and called for sanctions to be placed on officials involved in human rights violations linked to the explosion.
“Truth is a necessary first step to establishing accountability,” HRW’s Executive Chairman Kenneth Roth said at the news conference.
In the aftermath of the blast, Roth said the Lebanese people are suffering from the consequences of an unaccountable government more concerned about “its own welfare than the welfare of its people.”
Given the Lebanon authorities’ failure to conduct a reliable investigation, Roth stated the international community “has a duty to step in”.
He believes the evidence gathered by a UN probe could then be used to push for criminal accountability; even if Lebanese officials avoid domestic criminal accountability, foreign prosecutors are not bound by Lebanon’s “archaic” laws of impunity.
“If they are found guilty in foreign courts, then they could face international arrest warrants to ensure justice,” he said.