More than a year after the tragic explosion that tore through the port of Beirut, the Lebanese investigation into the blast has yet to provide answers about those responsible. In fact, the diligent efforts of different judges to investigate have come to symbolize Lebanon’s entrenched culture of impunity, which routinely shields the country’s ruling elite from accountability.
Lebanese leaders are directly involved in the explosion, having been warned of the stored explosives that caused it. Lebanon’s main political parties have therefore united their efforts to delay, obstruct and undermine the national investigation. Over the past year, their members have systematically refused to appear for questioning, lodged a complaint against the investigating judge and called for his dismissal. In February this year, Fadi Sawan, the first judge to lead the investigation, was removed from his post by Lebanon’s highest court for “bias” following complaints by two ministers whom he had accused of criminal negligence.
Similar attempts were made to remove his successor, Justice Tarek Bitar. Since taking office, Bitar has made multiple demands for the immunity of a number of senior politicians and ministers to be waived so they can be questioned on suspicion of criminal negligence, including the former prime minister. Minister Hassan Diab. Lebanese politicians have used legal procedures to suspend the investigation three times already.
At the same time, they launched a smear campaign against Bitar, attempting to cast doubt on his impartiality and accusing him of politicization. In October, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed that Bitar was using “the blood of victims to serve political interests”. Soon after, he went even further, accusing the judge of targeting Hezbollah political allies and demanding his removal.
Attempts to remove Bitar have, however, failed so far. As a result, Lebanese politicians have resorted to a strategy they have honed over decades: linking demands for accountability and justice to the threat of more violence or another civil war. Indeed, the country’s former finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil – against whom Bitar issued an arrest warrant – told local media that the national investigation threatened to push Lebanon towards new social conflicts. Officials linked to Shia parties allied Hezbollah and the Amal movement warned on October 12 that a failure to remove Bitar would lead to “unrest in the streets”. And so it turned out that two days later Hezbollah and Amal supporters marched to the Beirut courthouse to demand Bitar’s dismissal. The protest sparked the worst street violence Lebanon has seen in more than 13 years, leaving seven dead and scores injured.
The failures of the national inquiry are indicative of the broader breakdown of governance in Lebanon’s political system. Even in the face of a crippling financial meltdown — coupled with a deepening humanitarian crisis — Lebanon’s sectarian leaders seem to prefer to stay the course toward total collapse rather than enact reforms that could undermine their grip on power. Indeed, several Hezbollah-aligned Shiite ministers have recently pledged to boycott cabinet meetings until their demands to sack Bitar are met. For them and their colleagues, this has the double advantage of delaying overdue reforms even further. It also puts Lebanon on the path to recurring and violent security incidents.
This crisis poses many problems for Europe. On the one hand, Lebanon is home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 90% of whom currently live in extreme poverty. This is already a recipe for mass migration, and Lebanese citizens are already leaving in large numbers. The continued degeneration of the economic and humanitarian situation will make further leaks inevitable. And if recent events in Europe – notably the border crisis between Belarus and Poland – have underlined one thing, it is that the European Union is politically unable, and essentially unwilling, to deal with a new wave of refugees.
If the EU is to avoid such an eventuality, it is essential that the bloc increases its support for Lebanon’s national accountability efforts. The EU and its Member States should do this by using their influence, including the threat of targeted sanctions, to pressure politicians to stop obstructing justice and introduce comprehensive legal and policy reforms to ensure independence, impartiality and accountability of the judiciary.
Beyond that, however, if the past year has shown anything, it’s that the Lebanese political establishment is likely to remain impervious to such pressures. During his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Emmanuel Macron pledged to support reform in Lebanon. This represents a promising start. But, to have a chance of success, Macron will need to work with EU member states to find more concrete and creative ways to support national accountability efforts.
Such pathways exist. Firstly, as members of the United Nations and the Human Rights Council, EU Member States should support and assist in the establishment of an international, independent and impartial fact-finding mission on the explosion – a request that has been made countless times by international organizations. and Lebanese human rights groups, survivors and families of victims over the past year. Such an investigation would not replace, but rather supplement, the national investigation by ensuring that the facts are established thoroughly and transparently.
Second, the EU should invest in local partners, institutions and leaders committed to national accountability efforts. This includes supporting advocacy and human rights institutions such as the Beirut Bar Association, SEEDS for Legal Initiatives and Legal Agenda, all of which have worked to defend the rights of families of blast victims. .
Finally, in view of the upcoming legislative elections scheduled for March 2022, the EU should strive to create space for reformist candidates who could lead future reform processes. It only takes ten MPs to submit a bill, and so a victory for even a handful of these candidates could create a valuable channel through which to tackle Lebanon’s twisted system of governance – and begin to dismantle the regime. country’s impunity. .
While the EU’s influence undoubtedly remains limited, it is clear that it can and must take steps to support Lebanese society by showing the country’s corrupt leaders that impunity will not be the price to pay for stability. After all, if Lebanon’s ruling elite is able to protect itself from a tragedy as severe as the Beirut port explosion, what its members might get away with next is not worth considering.
Alessandra Thomsen is currently completing her master’s degree in international security with a specialization in the Middle East at Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs. She was an intern at ECFR until December 2021.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.