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Lebanon: Independent investigation of Beirut port explosion by Human Rights Council is vital to ensuring redress and accountability

In Arab Countries, International Advocacy Program by CIHRS

In a joint letter this morning 15 June 2021, member and observer states of the United Nations Human Rights Council were called on to establish a yearlong independent and impartial fact-finding mission into the Beirut port explosion of 4 August 2020. The signatories of the letter include 53 Lebanese, regional, and international rights organizations and individuals, as well as 62 survivors and families of the victims and firefighters.   Given the inadequacy and subjectivity that has thus far typified the investigations of the Lebanese authorities, the signatories have called upon the Council to uphold its role in protecting human rights by initiating an international investigation ensuring redress and compensation for victims while those complicit are held accountable for a preventable catastrophe that left 217 dead, 7000 injured, and approximately 300,000 homeless or displaced.

To the Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council,

Excellencies,

We, the undersigned Lebanese and international organizations, individuals, survivors, and families of the victims are writing to request your support in the establishment of an international, independent, and impartial investigative mission, such as a one-year fact-finding mission, into the Beirut port explosion of August 4, 2020. We urge you to support this initiative by adopting a resolution establishing such a mission at the Human Rights Council.

On August 4, 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history decimated the port and damaged over half the city. The Beirut port explosion killed 217 people, including nationals of Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Bangladesh, Philippines, Pakistan, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, and the United States. It wounded 7,000 people, of whom 150 acquired a physical disability, caused untold psychological harm, and damaged 77,000 apartments, forcibly displacing over 300,000 people. At least three children between the ages of two and fifteen lost their lives. Thirty-one children required hospitalization, 1,000 children were injured, and 80,000 children were left without a home. The explosion affected 163 public and private schools and rendered half of Beirut’s healthcare centers nonfunctional, and it impacted 56% of the private businesses in Beirut. According to the World Bank, the explosion caused an estimated US$3.8-4.6 billion in material damage.

The right to life is an inalienable and autonomous right, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (article 6), which Lebanon ratified in 1972. The Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, has stated that states must respect and ensure the right to life against deprivations caused by persons or entities, even if their conduct is not attributable to the state. The Committee further states that the deprivation of life involves an “intentional or otherwise foreseeable and preventable life-terminating harm or injury, caused by an act or omission.” States are required to enact a “protective legal framework which includes criminal prohibitions on all manifestations of violence…that are likely to result in a deprivation of life, such as intentional and negligent homicide.”

The facts as currently known suggest that the storage of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate alongside other flammable or explosive materials, such as fireworks, in a poorly secured hangar in the middle of a busy commercial and residential area of a densely populated capital city likely created an unreasonable risk to life.

Since the explosion, a number of official documents were leaked to the press, including official correspondence and court documents that indicate customs, port, judicial, and government officials as well as military and security authorities had been warned about the dangerous stockpile of potentially explosive chemicals at the port on multiple occasions since 2013.

Further, the Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 36 on article 6 states: “The duty to protect by law the right to life also requires States parties to organize all State organs and governance structures through which public authority is exercised in a manner consistent with the need to respect and ensure the right to life, including by establishing by law adequate institutions and procedures for preventing deprivation of life, investigating and prosecuting potential cases of unlawful deprivation of life, meting out punishment and providing full reparation.” The investigations into violations of the right to life must be “independent, impartial, prompt, thorough, effective, credible, and transparent,” and they should explore “the legal responsibility of superior officials with regard to violations of the right to life committed by their subordinates.”

The impact and aftermath of the explosion also likely violated Lebanon’s international human rights obligations to guarantee the rights to education and to an adequate standard of living, including the rights to food, housing, health, and property. More notably, Lebanon can only uphold its obligation to provide effective remedy to the victims on the basis of a credible, effective, and impartial investigation whose findings would then be the basis for any effective remedy plan.

In August, 30 UN experts publicly laid out benchmarks, based on international human rights standards, for a credible inquiry into the August 4, 2020, blast at Beirut’s port, noting that it should be “protected from undue influence,” “integrate a gender lens,” “grant victims and their relatives effective access to the investigative process,” and “be given a strong and broad mandate to effectively probe any systemic failures of the Lebanese authorities.”

The domestic investigation into the Beirut blast has failed to meet those international standards.  The ten months since the blast have been marked by the authorities’ obstruction, evasion, and delay. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Legal Action Worldwide, Legal Agenda, and the International Commission of Jurists have documented a range of procedural and systemic flaws in the domestic investigation that render it incapable of credibly delivering justice, including flagrant political interference, immunity for high-level political officials, lack of respect for fair trial standards, and due process violations.

Victims of the blast and their relatives have been vocal in calling for an international investigation, expressing their lack of faith in domestic mechanisms. They claim that the steps taken by the Lebanese authorities so far are wholly inadequate as they rely on flawed processes that are neither independent nor impartial. This raises serious concerns regarding the Lebanese authorities’ ability and willingness to guarantee victims’ rights to truth, justice, and remedy, considering the decades-long culture of impunity in the country and the scale of the tragedy.

As we approach the one-year anniversary of the explosion, the case for such an international investigation has only strengthened. The Human Rights Council has the opportunity to assist Lebanon to meet its human rights obligations by conducting an investigative or fact-finding mission into the blast to identify whether conduct by the state caused or contributed to the unlawful deaths, and what steps need to be taken to ensure an effective remedy to victims.

The independent investigative mission should identify human rights violations arising from the Lebanese state’s failure to protect the right to life, in particular whether there were:

  • Failures in the obligation to protect the right to life that led to the explosion at Beirut’s port on August 4, 2020, including failures to ensure the safe storage or removal of a large quantity of highly combustible and potentially explosive material;
  • Failures in the investigation of the blast that would constitute a violation of the right to remedy pursuant to the rights to life.

The independent investigative mission should report on the human rights violated by the explosion, failures by the Lebanese authorities, and make recommendations to Lebanon and the international community on steps that are needed both to remedy the violations and to ensure that these do not occur in the future.

The Beirut blast was not an isolated or idiosyncratic incident. In the weeks following the explosion, two fires broke out at the port in scenes reminiscent of the fire that resulted in the Beirut blast, terrorizing the public. In February 2021, a German firm tasked with removing tons of hazardous chemicals left in Beirut’s port for decades warned that what they found amounted to “a second Beirut bomb.” If these substances caught fire, Beirut would have been “wiped out”, the interim port chief said.

It is time for the Human Rights Council to step in, heeding the calls of the families of the victims and the Lebanese people for accountability, the rule of law, and protection of human rights. The Beirut blast was a tragedy of historic proportions, arising from failure to protect the most basic of rights – the right to life – and its impact will be felt for far longer than it takes to physically rebuild the city. The truth of what happened on August 4, 2020, is a cornerstone in redressing and rebuilding after the devastation of that day.

The thousands of individuals who have had their lives upended and the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have seen their capital city disfigured in a most irrevocable way deserve nothing less.

List of signatories:

  • Organizations:
  1. Access Center for Human Rights (Wousoul)
  2. Accountability Now
  3. ALEF – Act for Human Rights
  4. Amnesty International
  5. Anti-Racism Movement
  6. Arab NGO Network for Development
  7. Arab Reform Initiative
  8. Basmeh & Zeitooneh
  9. Baytna
  10. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
  11. Centre d’accès pour les droits de l’homme (ACHR)
  12. Committee of the Families of the Kidnapped and Disappeared in Lebanon
  13. Dawlaty
  14. Gherbal Initiative
  15. Gulf Centre for Human Rights
  16. Helem
  17. Human Life Foundation for Development and Relief (Yemen)
  18. Human Rights Research League
  19. Human Rights Solidarity (HRS)-Geneva
  20. Human Rights Watch (HRW)
  21. Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF)
  22. Impunity Watch
  23. International Commission of Jurists
  24. Justice and Equality for Lebanon
  25. Justice for Lebanon
  26. Khaddit Beirut
  27. Kulluna Irada
  28. Lebanese-Swiss Association
  29. Legal Action Worldwide
  30. Legal Agenda
  31. Liqaa Teshrin
  32. Mada Network
  33. Media Association for Peace (MAP)
  34. Meghterbin Mejtemiin (United Diaspora)
  35. Mwatana for Human Rights
  36. National Youth for Lebanon Movement
  37. PAX (Netherlands)
  38. Peace Track Initiative
  39. Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
  40. Refugees=Partners Project
  41. Samir Kassir Foundation
  42. SEEDS for Legal Initiatives
  43. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression – SCM
  44. The Alternative Press Syndicate Group
  45. The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH)
  46. The International Center for Transitional Justice
  47. The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH)
  48. The Lebanese Diaspora Network (TLDN)
  49. Tunisian League of Human Rights defense (LTDH)
  50. UMAM Documentation & Research
  • Individuals:
  1. Christophe Abi-Nassif – Lebanon Program Director, Middle East Institute
  2. Nasser Saidi – President Nasser Saidi & Associates; Former Lebanese Minister of Economy & Industry
  3. Randa Slim – Senior Fellow and Director of the Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues Program at the Middle East Institute
  • Survivors and Families of the Victims:
  1. Alexandre Ibrahimcha, lost his mother Marion Hochar Ibrahimcha
  2. Anthony, Chadia, Ava and Uma Naoum
  3. Antoine Kassab, lost his father
  4. Aya Arze Salloum
  5. Carine Farran Sacy
  6. Carine Tohme
  7. Carine Zaatar
  8. Carole Akiki
  9. Cecilia and Pierre Assouad
  10. Cedric el Adm, lost his sister
  11. Charbel Moarbes
  12. Charles Nehme, lost his father
  13. Cybele Asmar lost her aunt Diane Dib
  14. Fouad Rahme, lost his father
  15. Georges Zaarour, lost his brother
  16. Jean-Marc Matta
  17. Jihad Nehme
  18. Joanna Dagher Hayek
  19. Karine Makhlouf, lost her mother
  20. Karine Mattar
  21. Laura Khoury
  22. Lyna Comaty
  23. Mireille el Khoury, lost her son
  24. Myrna Mezher Helou, lost her mother
  25. Nadine Khazen, lost her mother
  26. Nicolas and Vera Fayad
  27. Nicolas Dahan
  28. Olga Kavran
  29. Patrice Cannan, lost his brother
  30. Patricia Haddad, lost her mother
  31. Paul and Tracy Naggear, lost their daughter Alexandra Naggear
  32. Reina Sfeir
  33. Rénié Jreissati
  34. Rima Malek
  35. Rony Mecattaf
  36. Sara Jaafar
  37. Sarah Copland, lost her son Isaac Oehlers
  38. Tania Daou Alam, lost her husband
  39. Tony Najm, lost his mother
  40. Vartan Papazian, lost his daughter-in-law
  41. Vicky Zwein
  42. Zeina Sfeir
  • Families of the following firefighters:
  1. Charbel Hetty
  2. Charbel Karam
  3. Elie Khouzamy
  4. Joe Akiki
  5. Joe Andoun
  6. Joe bou Saab
  7. Joe Noun
  8. Joseph Merhy
  9. Joseph Roukoz
  10. Misal Hawwa
  11. Najib Hetty
  12. Ralph Mellehy
  13. Ramy Kaaky
  14. Sahar Fares

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