Beset by one catastrophe after another, some man-made, some natural, Lebanon has been in a state of mourning for years. But no disaster in recent history has devastated the long-suffering country more than the massive – and as we have since learned, completely preventable – explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020.
On that fateful day, a fire in the port of Beirut caused the explosion of some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been improperly stored for several years in a port warehouse. The resulting explosion, believed to be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, swept through the Lebanese capital, killing at least 218 people, injuring more than 7,000 and displacing about 300,000.
It has been more than two years since the blast, but the victims have not yet found justice.
The ruling elites, who paved the way for the blast by allowing explosives to be stored precariously in a densely populated downtown, now appear to care more about saving their positions and reputations than about justice and accountability to the victims.
In the aftermath of the blast, Lebanese authorities not only failed to properly support injured and displaced civilians, but also made every effort to obstruct the investigation of the tragedy. The investigation had to be suspended in December 2021 due to numerous legal challenges from prominent suspects and strong pressure from influential political factions.
Some 13 months later, in January 2023, Tarek Bitar, the judge charged with leading the investigation, surprised the nation by announcing his decision to proceed with the investigation and to face the Lebanese Prime Minister at the time of the blast, Hassan Diab. two other former ministers with murder with probable intent. Several other top officials, including the country’s prosecutor, Ghassan Oweidat, and former head of domestic intelligence, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, were also charged in connection with the explosion.
The allegations briefly sparked hopes that the truth about the cause of this catastrophe will come to light and those personally responsible for the explosion will eventually be held accountable. Unfortunately, just a few days later, Attorney General Oweidat filed a counter-charge against Bitar and ordered the release of all suspects detained in connection with the case. Now the future of the probe is once again uncertain and the victims of the blast once again wonder if they will ever find justice.
It is disappointing that charges against Lebanese officials in positions of power have come to nothing. Their prosecution would undoubtedly have been a step toward accountability – and an essential one.
But we must not make the mistake of concentrating all efforts for justice on the prosecution of half a dozen individuals. Focusing too much on them risks giving the impression that once Lebanon’s “bad guys” are charged, prosecuted and imprisoned, justice will prevail and life will return to normal.
This is not the case.
The truth is that Lebanon’s sectarian structures feed these “bad guys” and enable their crimes and favoritism. Successful prosecutions and individual accountability are crucial, but by treating them like a panacea, the state is avoiding much-needed structural reforms that would address its chronic problems and prevent the recurrence of such tragedies.
So the conversation about the explosion in Beirut should not focus on the alleged guilt of half a dozen ministerial, judicial and security officials, but on the corrupt state culture that enabled their deadly crimes.
After all, the explosion was not a mistake or anomaly. It was a bloodbath caused by corruption, negligence and impunity. It was the result of Lebanon’s greedy political class being allowed to wield power unchecked for decades.
But Lebanon’s kleptocracy was not the only culprit in this catastrophe either. The international community’s indifference to the suffering and inaction of the Lebanese in the face of chronic corruption also played a role in this tragedy.
Global powers, from the United States and France to Saudi Arabia, enabled the corruption and mismanagement of the Lebanese establishment through their donations, financial support and patronage, paving the way for the explosion in Beirut.
There is no simple solution to Lebanon’s myriad problems. Extensive systemic change is the only way to prevent the country from facing avoidable man-made catastrophes. But the events of the past two years have clearly shown that the Lebanese political class will not voluntarily end impunity and corruption. Systemic reforms are only possible if the international community exerts meaningful pressure on the Lebanese state and the elites that control it.
World powers, especially the US as Lebanon’s largest donor, must hold the Lebanese state to account and insist on a thorough, fair and meaningful investigation into the explosion in Beirut. They must support Judge Bitar and ensure that he is not silenced and victimized by the powerful elite. More importantly, other countries should 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 – sanctions have harmed the Lebanese people and have not served as a deterrent to corruption or negligence. This is a call for the international community to change the way it treats Lebanon – a call for the country to end its partnership with the political establishment and to enter into a new, direct and fair relationship with Lebanese civil society.
Two years after the devastating blast, those who deserve the world’s support, understanding and help are not the members of Lebanon’s all-powerful political class, but the Lebanese citizens who have lost everything through the negligence, corruption and incompetence of their leaders.
Today, as Lebanese continue their quest for justice and accountability, no one but themselves should be at the center of the global conversation about their country.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.