Aid from the European Union is being unloaded from a cargo plane at Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport on September 12, 2020. © 2020 Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty Images

(Beirut) – International donors responding to the August 4, 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port should ensure that their emergency aid directly and immediately protects the rights of those affected, Human Rights Watch said today. They should not disburse emergency aid, including for housing, food, and health care, directly to the Lebanese government given its inability to secure these rights.

Funds should instead be disbursed directly to those in need and to organizations willing and able to immediately provide urgent services on the ground. This could be through a transparent entity with a clear mandate to protect rights, such as a consortium in which independent Lebanese civil society groups have a formal decision-making and oversight role.

“Lebanon’s urgent need for aid should not be an excuse to press international donors to hand over money to the Lebanese government, which has already squandered billions in previous aid and whose staggering incompetence caused this humanitarian catastrophe,” said Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Corruption helped destroy Beirut, so protection of basic economic rights and public oversight need to be the bedrock to rebuild the city.”

Thirty-six countries pledged 253 million euros (around $US300 million) for emergency support to Lebanon during a donor conference led by France on August 9. A second conference is planned for October. The money was pledged to help Lebanon cope with the aftermath of the shipping port explosion that devastated the city, killing 212 people, injuring more than 6,000, and leaving 300,000 people without shelter.

Lebanon imports more than 80 percent of its food, but the explosion, as well as a September 10 fire in the port, also destroyed Lebanon’s main food source, as the port previously handled around 70 percent of Lebanon’s imports. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that the September 10 fire destroyed an aid warehouse containing food packages and risked disrupting its humanitarian operations.

The lack of a functioning social safety net in Lebanon ensuring basic rights such as adequate housing and food for everyone has left most Lebanese dependent on the corrupt, sectarian-based “spoils system” for access to basic services, including jobs, education, and health care. Even before the blast, millions of people were struggling to afford food, housing, health care, electricity, and other basic rights due to the double hit of an economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite its resource limitations, the Lebanese government has an obligation to ensure that those affected by the blast have access to adequate housing, food, water, and health care. Yet, it has been noticeably absent from disaster relief efforts and humanitarian assistance, which have instead been led by local civil society groups and volunteers. These groups cleared the debris from the streets of Beirut’s destroyed neighborhoods, conducted needs assessments, fixed homes, delivered essentials like food and water, compiled a missing persons database, and provided survivors with physical and mental health support.

The Lebanese government has not shown any ability to channel aid in a way that would fully protect the economic and social rights of the entire population without discrimination.

Lebanon has received billions of dollars in aid and soft-loan packages since the end of its civil war in 1990, but substantial research has shown that the benefits were not shared equitably and were squandered through corruption and mismanagement. International donors pledged US$11 billion in 2018 during the CEDRE conference, organized by France, but have refused to unlock the aid until Lebanese authorities carry out comprehensive reforms.

In a 2018 study, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) found that 98 percent of Lebanese citizens believe that corruption is a very large or somewhat large problem in Lebanon, with more than 75 percent of respondents stating that corruption had strongly or somewhat increased in the previous two years. Since October 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters have been demanding accountability and an end to corruption, but they have often been met with unlawful violence.

Despite widespread perceptions about corruption, there has been little accountability for public officials accused of financial misconduct or corruption. Legislation passed by parliament to combat corruption and increase transparency, such as the Access to Information Law (February 2017) and a Law protecting whistleblowers (September 2018), have yet to be fully enforced.

Lebanon remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with 55 percent of the national income concentrated in the top 10 percent of earners. Julien Courson, head of the Lebanon Transparency Association, estimates that Lebanon loses US$2 billion in customs revenue each year due to corruption.

Initial World Bank estimates indicate that the Beirut explosion caused between $3.8 billion and $4.6 billion in physical damages, while losses due to the decline in economic activity are estimated to range between $2.9 billion and $3.5 billion. The most severely affected sectors are housing, transport, and tangible and intangible cultural assets, the World Bank said. It estimated that public sector reconstruction and recovery needs for 2020 and 2021 are in the range of $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion, with between $605 million and $760 million needed in the immediate term by December, and between US$1.18 billion and $1.46 billion in the short term for 2021.

Given credible allegations of corruption among officials and the authorities’ continued failure to address the massive economic and political crises endangering citizens’ access to basic rights, international donors should avoid sending emergency aid through the government and channel it directly to those in need, including through independent Lebanese civil society groups, Human Rights Watch said. Lebanon’s donors should also press Lebanese authorities to adopt and carry out meaningful, wide-ranging economic and political reforms that ensure the protection of basic rights for everyone in the country without discrimination.

Lebanon’s urgent need for aid should not be an excuse to press international donors to hand over money to the Lebanese government, which has already squandered billions in previous aid and whose staggering incompetence caused this humanitarian catastrophe. Corruption helped destroy Beirut, so protection of basic economic rights and public oversight need to be the bedrock to rebuild the city.
Aya Majzoub

Lebanon Researcher, Human Rights Watch

As a first step toward accountability and rebuilding trust between Lebanon’s institutions and its people, international donors should urge Lebanese political leaders to invite an independent, international investigation into both the immediate causes of the Beirut blast and the broader government negligence and corruption that led to the disaster. The ongoing domestic investigation lacks public credibility and key due process guarantees. The government referred the case to a special court with no appeals process and appointed a “judicial investigator” to lead the investigation through an opaque process that many contend was politically motivated.   

In the meantime, given Lebanon’s urgent needs, donors should channel emergency funds directly to those in need, or through local organizations providing much-needed services on the ground, including access to shelter, food, water, and health care, as well as international organizations. Lebanon has a robust civil society and organizations have shown they are willing to engage in reconstruction and recovery, as evidenced by the large-scale fundraising and disaster relief efforts they have led following the blast.

Many international donors have already said they will bypass the Lebanese government and provide aid through United Nations agencies instead. Donors should also provide significant support to local groups that are leading recovery efforts on the ground.

The UN usually coordinates and carries out projects through government agencies. Donors should insist that aid received by organizations, including UN agencies, does not end up with abusive government agencies or agencies incapable of protecting basic rights. Donors should conduct oversight of funds disbursed to that end and ensure that the UN and its implementing partners are rights-respecting, effective, and transparent. Donors should also insist on the involvement of independent civil society in providing oversight of project implementation.

UN agencies and other organizations receiving emergency aid should regularly and transparently report on all the funds they receive and spend, including information on primary and secondary implementing partners. They should ensure that their operations advance the economic and social rights of people in need, particularly the rights to water, shelter, health, and food, and publish how this is being accomplished.

“While ordinary citizens and civil society are in the streets of Beirut picking up the pieces, the government is impotently sitting on the sidelines,” Majzoub said. “Lebanon’s donors should empower Lebanese civil society to ensure that aid gets to those who need it the most.”

Recommendations for Donors

  • Create a funding consortium or other entity to pool emergency aid into one fund and disburse it among organizations that meet strict standards of respecting rights and transparency. The governance of this entity should include independent Lebanese civil society groups that are already engaged in providing emergency support and can provide oversight to mitigate the risk that Lebanese government officials use their influence to steer the funds for their own partisan or financial benefit. The entity would ensure the disbursement of funds based on transparent criteria that prioritize access to basic economic rights for all, without discrimination.
  • Ensure diverse governance of any funding entity for emergency aid, with representation from marginalized groups, including women, migrants, and refugees. Members should be selected based on a proven record of effective and independent service to Lebanon, rather than political connections or nominations. This would allow donor governments to avoid duplicating their efforts and ensure consistent standards for due diligence and project selection, as well as more effective and coordinated monitoring and evaluation teams. It would also ensure a formal role for civil society in leading and coordinating recovery efforts, helping to ensure they can hold their government accountable for using public funds in ways that respect and fulfill its human rights obligations.
  • With Lebanese civil society’s lead, conduct a speedy and comprehensive rights-based assessment of emergency needs that can serve as a roadmap for recovery. Using this assessment ensure that all aid interventions are based on a published set of standardized criteria that prioritizes the rights of all residents, and ensures no discrimination, direct or indirect, in access to basic rights. This includes assessing the current access to basic rights of marginalized groups, including residents of low-income neighborhoods, refugees, and migrant workers. Assistance should be allocated to ensure no direct or indirect discrimination, including based on gender, nationality, socio-economic status, refugee status, sexual orientation, and religion, including through understanding existing structural inequalities. It should also ensure that reconstruction funding does not support development schemes that damage cultural property.
  • Develop due diligence criteria to ensure that international and local groups receiving aid, as well as their implementing partners, are not engaged with or supported by government or other entities that are responsible for human rights abuses, and that they are transparent and rights-respecting. Funding rules should prohibit awarding contracts to companies owned in full or in part by government officials. Due diligence can benefit from local expertise on human rights and corruption.
  • Develop a tracking and monitoring platform. Donors should make publishing all contracts, grants, and project documents a condition of receiving aid, along with regular and transparent reporting with sufficient details about the funds and projects, and any restrictions the government/authorities place on implementation. It should also ensure that donors, nongovernmental organizations, and the public have regular access for monitoring and evaluating progress in carrying out projects.
  • To protect rights, diligently ensure that when emergency funds are channeled through the UN due to the scale of the recovery projects, the finances disbursed are used for their specified purpose. In doing so, donors and the system they create should rely on independent auditors as well as local civil society entities that are independent and capable of monitoring funds to ensure that no diversion occurs.