Beirut port blast: Why an international probe is the last chance for justice
The sidelining of Lebanon’s domestic probe into the 2020 Beirut port blast by Lebanese authorities has victims and activists looking towards the international community as their last chance for justice.
No one has yet been prosecuted for the 4 August 2020 Beirut port explosion which killed at least 250 and wounded over 6,000.
Human rights organisations have previously called for an international fact-finding mission into the blast, but as a complement, not a replacement for the domestic investigation.
However, last week authorities charged the lead investigator of the case, Judge Tarek Bitar, with “usurping” his legal authority and released all detainees held in connection with the case since 2020.
"Lebanese authorities have proven time and time again that they will do anything to stop this investigation. So, it's really time for the international community to step up"
Lebanon’s top prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, himself wanted in connection with the port blast, has told authorities to treat all legal authorities that come from Bitar “as if they do not exist”.
Oueidat’s orders appeared to some as the final blow against the investigation, which faced obstacles from Lebanon’s political class at every stage.
“I think Judge Bitar has the best interests of the victims at heart, but I think he’s always been set up to fail and the events of this week have shown that,” Sarah Copland, who lost her two-year-old son Isaac in the port blast, told The New Arab.
Lebanon’s judiciary is currently at a standstill, with Ouediat and Bitar both refusing to respond to the summons of the other judge. Oueidat has the weight of Lebanon’s political class behind him, many of whom have been charged by Bitar for their suspected roles in the port blast.
“The Lebanese authorities have proven time and time again that they will do anything to stop this investigation. So, it’s really time for the international community to step up,” Copland said.
What can the international community do to achieve justice?
Activists have called on the international community to carry out two types of investigations into the Beirut port blast.
The first is an independent fact-finding mission which would publish findings about culpability in the port blast, but would not impose any criminal charges on individuals.
The findings from the mission could be used by states, including Lebanon, in their own criminal investigations into the port blast, but on its own could not impose any consequences.
To establish such an investigation, a member of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) would have to put forth a resolution. Then other members of the HRC could vote in support of the move to create the fact-finding mission.
All of this could happen without the participation of the Lebanese government, bypassing attempts by officials to block the investigation within its own borders.
The second type of investigation which could be launched by the international community are cases initiated before national courts, as has already happened in France, Germany, and the US.
Many of those killed in the Beirut port blast were either dual nationals or foreign nationals. Courts of their countries of origin can open up criminal investigations into the Beirut port blast and could lead to indictments in these countries.
Though a few countries have already started investigations into the port blast, legal activists say more are on the way.
"Our only hope is the lawsuits taking place outside the country for non-Lebanese. As Lebanese, we have no value. I hope that victims with other nationalities … will pursue justice"
Accountability Now, a Swiss organisation which supports Lebanese legal society, put out a call on 25 January for European passport holders to file criminal complaints in their national jurisdictions.
Since then, the organisation has received “dozens” of cases from individuals who want legal representation in their national jurisdictions, Zeina Wakim, a lawyer with Accountability Now, told TNA.
Cases are being prepared in Germany, France, Belgium, Croatia, and the UK, Wakim said, adding that an international fact-finding mission could complement national investigations.
“They are not exclusive of one another, because the conclusions of a fact-finding mission established by the HRC will support any proceedings initiated outside of Lebanon,” Wakim said.
To those who have lost faith in Lebanon and the international community’s commitment to justice, national investigations remain the last possible avenue for justice.
“Our only hope is the lawsuits taking place outside the country for non-Lebanese. As Lebanese, we have no value. I hope that victims with other nationalities … will pursue justice,” Mireille Khoury, whose son 15-year old son Elias was killed in the port blast, told TNA.
Will a fact-finding mission happen?
Lebanese and international civil society has long called for an international fact-finding mission into the Beirut port blast, but their calls have thus far fallen on deaf ears.
In a July 2022 report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed to France as one of the main culprits of international inaction on the port blast case.
HRW said that “other countries appear to defer to France” as Lebanon’s former coloniser, and that France has not yet given the “green light” for other countries to proceed with an international investigation.
France and other countries previously said that the international community should wait for Lebanon’s domestic investigation to run its course before resorting to an international mission.
If Bitar is prevented from working on the case by the country’s judiciary, the international community would have less justification for not establishing an international probe.
The Beirut bar organisation released a statement to that effect on 26 January, urging the Lebanese general prosecutor to “let the investigation take its course”.
The statement further warned that the Lebanese judiciary should reverse course in blocking the port investigation, “to avoid resorting to an independent and impartial international investigation”.
The mobilisation of the Lebanese state to block the investigation last week has once again revived concern over impunity in Lebanon and interest in an international investigation into the port blast.
However, it will take concerted political will by key members of the HRC to translate international concern into concrete action and the establishment of a fact-finding mission.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou