Lebanon’s tragedy, one year after the Beirut blast
من الصحافة اخترنا لكم
If a massive explosion blamed on state incompetence had ripped through the capital of most countries, the families of those who lost their lives or were maimed would rightly expect a high political cost — and those responsible to be held to account. But a year after the largest non-nuclear blast in history killed more than 200 people in Beirut and wounded thousands of others, Lebanon’s victims are still inexplicably waiting for justice.
It is a tragedy heaped upon a tragedy. It exemplifies, too, the callous and despicable disregard Lebanon’s political elite has for its citizens, as it oversees a failing state and puts its own interests before those of the long-suffering population.
Days after the explosion, Lebanese leaders acknowledged that the August 4 blast appeared to be the result of negligence. Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in explosives, had been stored in the warehouse at Beirut’s port for six years. At the time, Michel Aoun, the president, promised that the authorities would hold “the responsible and the negligent accountable” and sentence them to the “most severe punishment”.
Yet Beirut rejected calls for an independent international probe. To date, no one has been held accountable. Aoun, an ally of Hizbollah, the militant group that is Lebanon’s dominant power, remains in office. So do most of his peers who have collectively steered the bankrupt nation ever deeper into the abyss.
More than 20 lower-level port and customs officials have been detained, but none has been tried in open court. Politicians have so far refused to lift immunity for MPs and other officials who Lebanese investigators want to prosecute. A judge who indicted some politicians without trying to lift their immunity was removed in February after two former ministers whom he accused of criminal negligence filed a complaint against him.
The government did resign after the blast. But 12 months on, Lebanon’s bickering, sectarian political factions, which have for decades gorged on a patronage system rife with corruption, have failed to agree on a new administration.
All the while, the country’s worst economic crisis since a 15-year civil war ended in 1990 deepens every day. That piles more misery on the population as the currency plummets to new lows, hyperinflation soars and shortages of fuel, medicines and other goods blight the nation.
Donors, including the US, France and the UK, are ready to help if a credible government is formed that is willing and able to tackle corruption and implement urgently needed reforms. An IMF support package is also waiting in the wings if the political class gets its act together. So far, the power brokers have ignored international pressure, just as they have ignored the plight of their people.
Last month, EU officials, frustrated by the intransigence, said the bloc had agreed to create a “sanctions regime” to target Lebanese leaders who have presided over the stalemate and been involved in corruption. No action has yet been taken. But punitive measures against the warlords-cum-politicians who are holding the shattered nation hostage may be the one thing that triggers a rethink within the elite.
Western states should consider ways to sanction those impeding the investigation into the port explosion and preventing those responsible from being brought to justice. The very least the victims deserve is some form of accountability. If the status quo continues, Lebanon’s slide towards total collapse will only accelerate.