A year on from the Beirut Blast: corruption, politics and the rule of law
A year on from the devastating Beirut blast, Lebanon is suffering from one of the “most severe” depressions in modern history. Despite Lebanon’s previous Hezbollah-backed Prime Minister Hassan Diab stepping down, the government responsible for the Beirut port explosion continues to escape accountability. Without any form of reprimand for those responsible for the deadly blast which killed 218 people, Lebanon will continue to feel its effects for years or even decades to come.
The current state of affairs
The current economic crisis Lebanon is suffering has only been exacerbated by continued tit-for-tat accusations between political parties and leaders. The previous administration resigned shortly after the Port explosion; however, Lebanon continues to struggle after experiencing 13 months without a fully-formed government. Most recently, politician and businessman Najib Mikati was tasked with forming a new administration capable of rebuilding the country’s economy. Mikati is the third political elite to try his hand at restoring Lebanon's governing body in the last year – symbolising the dire need for change and structure within the Lebanese political system.
When understanding the Lebanese people’s frustrations, it is necessary to note that Lebanon is a unitary parliamentary confessionalist constitutional republic. In layman’s terms, the political power is vested in a parliament that is led by a Prime Minister, who is ultimately appointed by an elected President. Despite there being a constitution specifically divesting power in the people and prescribing that “all Lebanese shall be equal before the law”, the government remains run by the political and business elite. When a country is run by CEOs rather than politicians, it becomes more about how much they can personally profit compared to how the country can be improved. Relying on personal gain rather than representing the common good of the people has ultimately run Lebanon into a dire need for change and action.
Starting in 2019-20 and continuing long after the 2020 Beirut Blast, the “thawra” (revolution) protest groups continue to push for their ideals of realism. More importantly, they are pushing their agenda to bring the political elite to justice for their mismanagement of a country now warped by an economic crisis coupled with the realism of poverty.
Despite the state of political disarray in Lebanon predating the Beirut blast more than a year ago, the explosion signified to the world the dire state Lebanon was actually in. Some officials resigned and other “low to mid-level port and customs workers” were arrested shortly after the explosion. However, the biggest step towards accountability was made when the outgoing Prime Minister Diab and three former ministers were charged with criminal negligence. In spite of these charges, no arrest warrants were ever issued. The political influence of Lebanon’s elite cost Lebanon its right to justice. This was made abhorrently clear when the presiding Judge Fadi Sawan was officially removed from his role just two months after laying these charges and when the Minister of Interior stated he would “refuse to implement any arrest warrants targeting former ministers”. This outright and blatant dismissal of the rule of law, embedded in Lebanon’s constitution, is yet another example of how the political elite continue to run Lebanon into poverty without intervention.
So is this the end of the road in holding those in power accountable? Since the national strategy in prosecuting those responsible for the explosion resulted in little to no reprimand, it now falls to the international community to push for justice. The EU announced a sanctions framework in July 2021, that aims to hold the political elite related to the Beirut blast accountable while also upholding the rule of law. These sanctions mainly target the banking sector and political leaders who have been at the core of driving Lebanon’s economy into the ground. US sanctions as a form of producing immediate change in the country have been successful in the past, such as those imposed on two Lebanese money exchanges for the financing of Hezbollah. The US also imposed restrictions on “Lebanon’s antiquated banking secrecy regime”, which resulted in enforcing disclosure requirements on banking institutions on US customers under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act. History has suggested that sanctions and interference from the West in countries’ corrupt financial institutions can create real and much-needed change. As such, more Western countries should consider imposing similar measures on Lebanon’s financial sector to prevent a beckoning failed state.
The road to restoration
No fuel means no electricity, no transportation, no hospitals, no safe food, no drinking water and no businesses. Lebanese citizens are blaming political sectarianism and corruption for this dire economic state Lebanon finds itself in.
Lebanon is now at a crossroads, with its citizens and the international community demanding the political elite to step down or face the full force of economic sanctions. If the political elite step down, they face being incriminated, but if they decide to stay in power and protect themselves, they will be exposing their country to economic despair.
With the appointment of a new 24-minister government headed by Mikati, a “multi billionaire businessman and one of the wealthiest men in Lebanon”, now is the time for action. If political decisions continue to remain in the hands of the wealthiest men, the 55 per cent of people already living in poverty in the country will continue to rise. It has now fallen on the shoulders of the international community to put pressure on the political elite within the country to make changes. Still, it nearly seems too late as the country will soon be left without a functioning economy or, at the very least, running water.
Elle Greaves is the Middle East and North Africa Regional Correspondent for Young Diplomats Society. She is a qualified lawyer and has a special interest in public international law, modern weapons, religious extremism and counterterrorism.