Lebanon is on its knees in an unfolding economic, political and social crisis, exacerbated by long standing government corruption, negligence and incompetence at the expense of human safety and the lives of many who already endure a precarious existence. The country's downward spiral has the potential to destabilise the region and plunge the country into another civil war. This is a serious and urgent concern for the international community.
An explosion of the scale seen in Beirut this week would be devastating in any context, but in the storm that is currently Lebanon, it is another deeply alarming signal that the country is on the brink of collapse.
The explosion has brought into focus the grave consequences corruption in this Middle-Eastern country has for its people, and its future. Officials in Lebanon have blamed the incident on a large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse in the Beirut port for six years. One has to wonder why highly explosive material was allowed to sit in the middle of a densely populated city for such a long period of time. Corruption and incompetence are the likely reasons.
It is this corruption that will make it extremely difficult for the international community to provide assistance to the country's people following the blast, without corrupt officials benefitting from the tragedy and aid money that is intended to help those who are suffering being used for purposes wholly unintended by those donating.
The devastating explosion comes in the wake of an alarming deterioration of the economy, political framework and security in Lebanon, further aggravated by the pandemic and the associated restrictions. There are accusations the numbers of those affected by COVID-19 in Lebanon are purposefully inaccurate. There is mass unemployment, essential services such as water and sanitation are inconsistent, and it is difficult to purchase basic goods. There is limited electricity with widespread blackouts up to 22 hours a day caused by a fuel shortage.
Lebanon’s currency has fallen, leading to protests in the streets and banks are vandalised as people struggle to maintain some semblance of normal life. The economic crisis has heightened the already fragile situation in Lebanon, a situation inflamed by the explosion, with widespread property destruction and hundreds of thousands of people now homelessness – during a pandemic no less.
Rescue workers help an injured man at the explosion scene that hit the seaport of Beirut.Credit:HUSSEIN MALLA /AP
Images of the Beirut explosion are reminiscent of the protracted Lebanese civil war, which scarred the country and resulted in long lasting political tensions, the mass displacement of more than one million people and more than 120,000 fatalities. The idea that Lebanon might see another civil war is increasing in probability as conditions in the country deteriorate.
The deadly blast occurred only three days before the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon in The Hague was due to deliver its judgment in the Ayyash case, the trial of four Hezbollah-linked men accused of murdering the former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri and 21 others, and injuring more than 200, in a truck bomb 15 years ago. The findings of the tribunal could have serious implications for the security situation in Lebanon.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has postponed the Ayyash judgment until August 18 out of respect for the victims and the three days of public mourning. The Tribunal is likely also aware of the extremely tense situation in Lebanon and the affect a judgment on the Hariri assassination could have on peace in the region. The assassination of Hariri was a prominent event in Lebanon and internationally; the Tribunal’s judgment will be closely watched.
Lebanon is on its knees and the explosion is further devastation, adding injury, destruction and loss of life to a country which cannot adequately respond in the current circumstances. The situation is dire and the international community should step in to offer humanitarian assistance for the people of Lebanon who should be the priority, all with the transparency required to avoid corruption co-opting the process of recovery.
Dr Shannon Maree Torrens is an international and human rights lawyer from Sydney who has worked at the United Nations international criminal tribunals and courts.