On the evening of Tuesday, 4 August 2020, Beirut witnessed a massacre that erupted from its port and spread, to varying degrees, through all its quarters. This disaster only adds to the catastrophes that Lebanon’s populace has been languishing under with dwindling hope that their effects can be overcome in the foreseeable future. However, unlike the earlier disasters, this one came soaked in the blood of thousands of dead and wounded.
The full scope of the disaster – which destroyed the vital port that has spurred Beirut’s development since the 19th century and receives over 60% of Lebanon’s imported goods, as well as large parts of the city’s residential and commercial districts – is not yet clear. However, the disaster’s timing amidst a financial and economic collapse compounds its destructive consequences. The state, central bank, and other banks were already insolvent, the Lebanese citizens have lost their deposits, savings, and incomes because of the national currency’s collapse, and tens of thousands have lost their jobs and work. The losses caused by the port disaster, which amount to billions of dollars, only add to the enormous losses that the ruling authority was eventually forced to acknowledge. All these losses limit the state’s ability to perform its supportive functions, including compensating the victims and reconstructing or repairing their homes and establishments. Moreover, the port’s destruction has deprived the state of customs revenue and increased the cost of import, which must now occur via other ports. Thus, whereas the port’s revenue could have mitigated the social suffering, the severing of Lebanon’s vital artery will only increase it.
Hence, after expressing our complete solidarity with our people and, in particular, everyone who has been affected personally, via their loved ones, or via their home and city, the Legal Agenda wishes to make the following comments:
Legal Liabilities and Punishment: The Judiciary Faces a Test of Trust
Given the horror of the disaster, whose causes are not yet completely clear, questions about criminal liability, proportional punishment, and the judiciary’s readiness to deliver a fair, undiluted outcome are naturally arising. In this context, we must make the following observations:
Officials in the Public Administrations Must be Held Accountable
Irrespective of the cause of the explosion and, in particular, whether it was intentional, the storage of large quantities of chemicals as dangerous as aluminum nitrate in a port warehouse in violation of several legal prohibitions places serious direct liabilities on present and past (since 2014) officials in the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Port Authority of Beirut, and the Directorate General of Customs. These liabilities may, in light of investigations, extend to people who neglected to exercise their powers in one way or another, or knew and remained silent about the materials even though they lay at the core of their purview, as might be the case for many of the security agencies. The investigations will probably show that, as with the financial and monetary collapse, senior officials knew that such an explosion was possible but took none of the steps needed to prevent it or protect public interest. While the enormity of the crime will hopefully lessen the chance of liabilities being falsified or circumvented, most of the recent destructive crimes (particularly corruption and the crimes of the central bank and other banks) have gone unpunished because of networks of interests and insufficient judicial independence, which has allowed their repetition.
The Executive Branch Should Not Investigate Itself
The Council of Ministers decision to establish an administrative investigation committee composed of ministers and heads of security agencies flies in the face of the requirements of justice. How can the executive branch run an investigation into the liabilities of public administrations subject to its own authority in such a crime? Making matters worse, the Council of Ministers asked the military leadership to place anyone implicated in the aluminum nitrate case under house arrest pursuant to the State of Emergency Law, which will allow the latter to point fingers, influence the investigations, and undermine the presumption of innocence.
These unjustified moves were accompanied by a discourse that raises the stature of the military forces – which have been handed administration of the capital – and disparages the judicial branch by portraying it as responsible for leaving the dangerous materials in the port’s warehouses, thereby concealing the administration’s responsibility for this error. Unfortunately, this trend is occurring amidst a withdrawal by the judiciary and Public Prosecution offices from their roles and silence about their marginalization. It is rather telling that no judges from the competent Public Prosecution offices (the Cassation Public Prosecution, the Military Public Prosecution, and the Appellate Public Prosecution in Beirut), nor the first investigating judge in Beirut, have visited the scene of the crime even though the law obliges them to immediately initiate investigations and gather and preserve evidence.
On this basis, and given the decline of trust in the judiciary and the executive branch’s efforts to exploit this decline to escape its liabilities by establishing administrative and military committees, the Lebanese judiciary and those in charge of administering or holding it accountable today face a fundamental test. They must prove their aptitude and restore the people’s trust in the rule of law and the judiciary’s role in protecting people’s fundamental rights against the system of political, judicial, administrative, and security-force corruption that has brought the country to this catastrophic collapse.
Finally, because of the delicacy of these judicial investigations, they must occur transparently and under the oversight of rights organizations such that the needs of public interest are given precedence over investigation confidentiality.
Political Liability First: How Can We Stop Ongoing Crime?
Obviously, the victim of this massacre is the entire Lebanese people since the people as a whole will pay the price. Hence, justice for the victims requires not only the enforcement of criminal liability and compensation but also – and before all else – the enforcement of political liability by all social forces. Just like the financial collapse, this massacre is resounding evidence of the rock-bottom performance of the public utilities, which have transformed into a collection of fiefs that work for the benefit of one leader or another rather than to fulfill the functions that they exist to perform (i.e. to serve the common good). All this occurs within a mafia-like system clearly apparent from the conduct of the Association of Banks in Lebanon and the facts revealed by the indictment in the tainted fuel case – a system that gravely and perpetually endangers the interests of the state and citizens instead of protecting them, that serves private interests, and that enjoys near absolute immunities from accountability. This system is reflected by the mismanagement of the port and customs, and the scope of the serious and persistent violations that led to the massacre. Moreover, the Constitutional Council’s recent decision to annul a law enhancing transparency in the mechanism for appointing first-class state employees reaffirmed the mechanisms for patronage and subordinating the administration.
Hence, whatever individual or occupational liabilities could emerge from a serious investigation into this case, averting similar disasters in the future requires a broad social awakening that leads to radical change in the system and mechanisms of governance.
Institutionalizing the Victims’ Pain: What Are the Options for A Citizen Victim?
Amidst the accumulation of catastrophes and crimes against the people, citizens are not only amassing personal losses but also discovering every day that the existing system, the deterioration of the public utilities, and the rampant corruption and patronage therein affects their personal property, which they thought was immune. First corruption devoured their deposits, the deposits of the establishments they own or work in, and, subsequently, their incomes and job opportunities; now it has blown up their homes and shed their blood. Just as broad segments of Lebanese were previously united by financial loss and degradation, today large segments are united by blood.
To the Lebanese, this accumulation of crimes and losses proves more than ever before the extent to which the public and the private are connected. It also proves that the preservation of vital rights goes hand in hand with the existence of a just and capable state. Hence, Lebanese people face two paths: either they, having lost hope in Lebanon, emigrate in search of a state that guarantees them a minimum level of rights regardless of their attachment to the homeland, or they – like us – remain here in spite of everything. We who stay, whether by choice or compulsion, must redouble our engagement in public affairs as they constitute the fundamental pathway to change and therefore to preserving our rights and the rights of future generations. We can thereby defend not only society but also ourselves and our children, with a view to flipping the balance of power, recovering what public interests remain, and reconstructing the state.
The first force whose cooperation and solidarity are sought at this moment may be the massacre’s victims and their families. Hopefully, this will lead to the institutionalization of their pain via the formation of cross-sectarian and cross-regional assemblies – just as occurred among the families of people who went missing in the civil war – and hence to the transformation of that pain into legal power against the authority’s tyranny and arbitrariness.
In conclusion, the Legal Agenda reiterates its full commitment to defending society, especially in the gloomy circumstances that Lebanon is passing through. In this case, this commitment compels us to expend all possible efforts to promote political and legal accountability, and support the victims in order to do them justice and stop the ongoing crime perpetrated against them and against society as a whole.
Keywords: Lebanon, Massacre, Corruption, Crime, Disaster, Victim