The tragedy has prompted massive protests but has also elicited the international community to pledge monetary assistance. In the spirit of accountability to both its citizens and donors, the Lebanese authority should conduct, with integrity, an open and transparent investigation that is able to establish legal and criminal responsibilities. The investigation should also pave the way for reforms to root out chronic corruption. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
The tragic case of the Beirut blast has resulted in some 200 deaths, 6,000 injured and 300,000 homeless. Opaqueness and corruption caused 2,750 tons of highly dangerous ammonium nitrate to be stored haphazardly in the port, with full official knowledge but without any official intervention for six long years until the fateful accident on 4 Aug.
The MV Rhosus docked in Beirut Port in 2013 after suffering technical problems while sailing from Georgia to Mozambique. 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were offloaded the following year and kept in unsafe conditions in a warehouse at the port, with nothing done about it for six years. The ship, because it was in a dilapidated state, sank at the port in Feb 2018.
The explosion struck a deadly blow at a country already mired in economic turmoil, pandemic lockdown, chronic corruption and mismanagement. It does not help that there is also a dysfunctional government. Many ordinary people have been reduced to poverty and despair, and there are widespread mass protests.
Besides the devastating toll on human lives, officials estimated that the explosion caused US$3 billion in direct damage and collective economic losses may reach US$15 billion. The accident also led to the resignation of the government, and efforts to form a new government is still ongoing.
During the speech to announce the resignation, outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab admitted to “a system of corruption… deeply-rooted in all the functions of the state”. He said that “One of the many examples of corruption exploded in the port of Beirut, and the calamity befell Lebanon”.
According to a report by the New York Times, this system of corruption and bribes gave rise to a perfect bomb. The corrupt and dysfunctional system failed to respond to the threat while enriching the country’s political leaders through bribery and smuggling, as every time cargoes move in and out of the port, there is a long chain of bribes to many parties.
The Times’ team of investigative journalists found that in the warehouse where the ammonium nitrate was stored, there were also other very inflammable materials including jugs of oil, kerosene, hydrochloric acid, five miles of fuse on wooden spools and 15 tons of fireworks. More damning is the fact that a lot of officials already knew about this dangerous situation but yet did nothing about it, including port and customs authorities, three ministries, the commander of the Lebanese Army, at least two powerful judges and, weeks before the blast, the prime minister and president.
In early Oct, 20 people have been arrested and the judge leading the investigation has also requested INTERPOL to detain both the foreign owner and captain of the ship, MV Rhosus, which brought in the ammonium nitrate. However, more should be done to address the cause, rather than just to mitigate the symptoms.
With regards to the investigation, the government’s policy should be open rather than closed, to be transparent rather than opaque, and to give timely information to all stakeholders rather than withhold such information. As a first step, it is important to set the pace and tone of the process by appointing technocrats rather than partisan politicians to the panel, and making sure there is no interference from sectarian interest groups.
It is hoped that the explosion will be a turning point for Lebanon, and the investigation can be used to establish confidence and give hope to the people that things are going to change for the better. Moreover, a good investigation is also a reassurance and as well as an obligation to the international donors that their money is accounted for. The authority should not squander away this chance. It is, in short, now or never.
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