Nearly three years after the Beirut port explosion killed more than 200 people, injured thousands, and devastated large parts of the city, Lebanese authorities have stymied all attempts to get to the truth and ensure accountability for the disaster.
In a March communication to the Lebanese government only made public last week, the UN expert on judicial independence, Margaret Satterthwaite, warned that the ongoing interference in the investigation was so significant that it impacted “the very ability of the Lebanese justice system to ensure accountability.”
Hampered by political interference, the investigation has been effectively suspended since December 2021. On January 23, 2023, investigative Judge Tarek Bitar attempted to resume the investigation. The attempt was thwarted by Lebanon’s top prosecutor, who filed a series of lawsuits against Bitar, suspending the investigation and ordering the release of all 17 suspects detained in connection to the case. At least one suspect has since fled the country.
In her letter, Satterthwaite said that “threats, accusations and other efforts to block Judge Bitar's work would constitute significant violations of Judge Bitar's judicial independence, as well as his right to personal security and life.” Judge Bitar has reportedly received credible death threats and lives under military protection.
Satterthwaite, who currently serves as the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, said the survivors and families of the explosion’s victims are entitled to a remedy, which can only be guaranteed by the effective work of an independent judiciary. She called on Lebanon’s government to take measures to ensure Judge Bitar’s safety and end interference in his investigation.
The authorities’ refusal to bring to justice those responsible is alarming Lebanon’s international partners. During the March UN Human Rights Council session, Australia delivered a joint statement on behalf of 38 states, including several donor countries, expressing concern that the investigation has been “hampered by systemic obstruction, interference, intimidation and a political impasse”, calling for a “swift, independent, impartial, credible and transparent investigation.”
Lebanese authorities have taken no meaningful steps since then. They didn’t even bother responding to the UN expert’s letter.
Given the lack of action, it’s essential to establish an international fact-finding mission that can determine responsibility for the catastrophic explosion. UN Human Rights Council member states should ensure justice for victims by adopting a resolution to dispatch an independent and impartial fact-finding mission on the Beirut explosion. Justice should become the new norm in Lebanon.