Lebanon has been struck by numerous catastrophes, both natural and man-made, in recent years. However, the explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, caused by the detonation of improperly stored ammonium nitrate, was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history and devastated the country. The blast killed at least 218 people, injured over 7,000, and displaced around 300,000. Despite being more than two years since the tragedy, the victims are yet to find any justice.
The Lebanese ruling elites allowed explosive materials to be stored in a densely populated area, paving the way for the blast. However, they appear to care more about saving their positions and reputations than delivering justice and accountability to the victims. The authorities not only failed to support citizens who were injured and displaced but also hindered the investigation into the tragedy. The investigation had to be suspended in December 2021 due to legal challenges raised by prominent suspects and pressure from influential political factions.
In January 2023, Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the probe, announced his decision to continue with the investigation and charge the Lebanese prime minister at the time of the blast, Hassan Diab, and two other former ministers with homicide with probable intent. Several other top officials were also charged in connection with the explosion. However, Prosecutor General Oweidat filed counter-charges against Bitar and ordered the release of all suspects detained in connection with the case a few days later. The future of the probe is once again uncertain, and the victims are left wondering whether they will ever find justice.
While prosecuting half a dozen officials in positions of power would have been a step towards accountability, it is not enough. Lebanon’s sectarian structures feed corruption and enable crimes and cronyism. Treating successful prosecutions and individual accountability as a panacea leads to the state avoiding much-needed structural reforms that would address its chronic problems and prevent the repeat of such tragedies.
The Beirut blast was not a mistake or an anomaly but a massacre caused by corruption, negligence, and impunity. It was the consequence of Lebanon’s greedy political class being allowed to wield unchecked power for decades. The international community’s indifference to Lebanese suffering and inaction in the face of chronic corruption also played a role in this tragedy. Global powers enabled the corruption and mismanagement of the Lebanese establishment through their donations, financial support, and protections.
Extensive systemic change is the only way to ensure that Lebanon does not continue to suffer preventable, man-made catastrophes. However, the Lebanese political class will not end impunity and corruption voluntarily. Systemic reforms can only come if the international community applies meaningful pressure on the Lebanese state and the elites controlling it.
Global powers, especially the US as Lebanon’s biggest donor, have to demand accountability from the Lebanese state and insist on a thorough, fair, and meaningful investigation into the Beirut blast. They should put their support behind Judge Bitar and ensure that he is not silenced and victimized by the powerful elite. Other countries need to stop providing lifelines to Lebanon’s corrupt elites through their donations and other offers of financial and political support.
This is not a call for sanctions but a call for the international community to change the way it engages with Lebanon. It is a call for it to end its partnership with the political establishment and start a new, direct, and honest relationship with Lebanese civil society.
Two years after the devastating blast, those who deserve the world’s support, understanding, and aid are not the members of Lebanon’s all-powerful political class but the Lebanese citizens who lost everything because of their leaders’ negligence, corruption, and incompetence. Today, as Lebanese people continue their quest for justice and accountability, no one else but them should be at the center of the global conversation about their country.