Lebanese have “complete lack of confidence” in Beirut explosion investigation, says Human Right Watch

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The fallout from this week’s devastating explosion in Beirut is now all too clear – a staggering number of deaths and injuries, hospitals destroyed or overwhelmed and an overwhelmingly aggravated economic crisis.However, what remains unclear is how 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate were left in the capital’s busy port for years, and what ultimately blew it up.

At least 135 people were killed and more than 5,000 injured on Tuesday when the explosion erupted in the Lebanese capital. The explosives had been stored in a port warehouse since they were confiscated from a cargo ship in 2013, despite multiple warnings from port officials about the risks.

In an interview with As it happens On Wednesday, the Minister of the Economy Raoul Nehme promised that a government investigation into the explosion would be deep and wide-ranging. Military judge Fadi Akki, who is leading the investigation, said Thursday that 16 port workers have been arrested and 18 people have been questioned so far.

But Aya Majzoub, a Beirut resident who works with Human Rights Watch, says the Lebanese government cannot be trusted to investigate the explosion. She spoke to As it happens Guest host Susan Bonner on Thursday as residents of Beirut demonstrated amid the wreckage of the explosion. Here is part of their conversation.

How would you describe the atmosphere in the streets of Beirut today?

People are angry. I have never seen people so mad as they are today.

People are both baffled by the fact that over 2,700 tonnes of explosives have been left in the port for several years, but also outraged at the incompetence and neglect of the Lebanese ruling elite.

What kind of reaction did you see to the evidence that senior Lebanese officials had known for years of the presence of these hazardous materials and did nothing?

Really, it is very difficult to understand how many people knew of the existence of these explosives and did nothing.

As more and more documents emerge and journalists and researchers delve deeper, the number of people involved in this cover-up is increasing second by second.

Two men gaze at the devastated port of Beirut from a damaged building in the nearby Mar Mikaehl neighborhood. (Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty Images)

People have been placed under arrest. Port officials. What kind of reaction is there to this?

People say it is not enough. You know, the problem didn’t start with the port officials. Yes, they should be held accountable. But the investigation should be much broader.

People should be watching, you know, what made that easier? You know, port officials weren’t the only ones who knew of the existence of ammonium nitrate in Beirut. Who else was involved?

People are so disillusioned that the results of an investigation by the Lebanese authorities will not be taken seriously and will not be credible in the eyes of the Lebanese public.– Aya Majzoub

And really part of the problem is the complete lack of trust between the Lebanese public and the Lebanese state. The Lebanese public is rightly suspicious of this Lebanese government which for many years has blindly robbed the country. And it was only the latest in a series of failures.

People are so disillusioned that the results of an investigation by the Lebanese authorities will not be taken seriously and will not be credible in the eyes of the Lebanese public.

Weren’t the port officials the ones who sent warnings to politicians through the courts?

They were. Based on the evidence we have so far, there are several letters that port officials have sent to the judiciary asking them to act. But, you know, the fact that justice does not react is not a reason to ignore or not act on something as sensitive and explosive as this.

Are you worried that the various officials, the port officials, the judges themselves will be blamed for this and that the elected politicians will slip away from accountability?

Absolutely. I mean, this is what we are used to in Lebanon – the political elite scapegoat people of lower rank to escape abuse, crime or neglect.

The concern is therefore there, which is why we have called for an independent investigation with international experts. Anything below this will not provide the confidence and credibility the investigation needs.

It is a new government in Lebanon. Does that give you any hope that there will be a determined effort to get to the bottom of it?

Unfortunately no. Even though… the faces are new, the people who appointed them and those to whom they have their loyalty are the same politicians and the same party leaders and the same warlords who have ruled the country for decades.

In our opinion, this government is a continuation of previous Lebanese governments and it is neither independent nor technocratic.

We still don’t know what caused the explosion. How confident are you that the kind of survey you requested would answer this question?

We hope that an independent investigation can answer this question. But the concern, the immediate concern now, is the tampering with evidence.

Efforts have already been made to clean up the port. Efforts have already been made to try to remove the rubble. So with that, our concern is that evidence that could lead to an explanation of what really happened could also be buried.

Locals hold brooms as they demonstrate in Beirut. (Marwan Tahtah / Getty Images)

And in the meantime, as Lebanon tries to cope, all kinds of aid funds are pouring into the country – money coming from all over the world, including Canada. Given the concerns you have raised about government incompetence and possible corruption, how do you think this aid should be administered?

We, as Human Rights Watch, have called for aid to go directly to people in need or organizations working on the ground, not channeled through governments.

And there appears to be international recognition of the need for a process like this, an independent process separate from government, given the Lebanese government’s history of wasting billions of dollars in aid that has never been paid to the public.

How optimistic are you about the future of Beirut and Lebanon?

It’s really hard at a time like this to think of anything hopeful or to think of anything optimistic in the midst of such widespread destruction. But what inspired me these last days is to see the Lebanese people unite and help each other out of this crisis and start to rebuild.

There has been a total absence of the Lebanese state in the streets and in response to disasters. This has been left to community organizers and to local and private initiatives.

I can’t say how touching and inspiring it has been to walk the streets of Beirut and see young people coordinating teams in various neighborhoods and cleaning up efforts and distributing food and water to people in the need.

As long as the Lebanese show that kind of solidarity with each other, I think it might take a long time to recover, but I hope something good can come out of this disaster and people can start to build the state they want and the state they deserve.

You experienced the explosion. You were there for the immediate consequences. What kind of impact does this have on you personally?

It has been a very difficult day. I mean, I have never, ever experienced in my life what I experienced a few days ago. Just the shock of the explosion. Widespread destruction. Confusion on everyone’s faces. The wounds. The blood. I mean, it’s devastating.

Right now, everyone’s trying to deal with, you know, disaster relief and trying to assess the damage and help the less fortunate. But, you know, I think reality is going to set in soon, and it’s terrifying.


Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview conducted by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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