Prosecuting a few ‘bad guys’ will not heal Lebanon’s wounds

Delivering true justice to Beirut blast victims and preventing the repeat of such a tragedy requires systemic change.

A demonstrator holds a black and white Lebanese flag during a protest for Families of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion against Lebanon's top public prosecutor who charged the judge investigating the Beirut port blast and ordered the release of those detained in connection with the explosion in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut, Lebanon January 26, 2023.
A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest in January 2023 in Beirut supporting the families of the victims of the 2020 Beirut port explosion against Lebanon's top public prosecutor who charged the judge investigating the blast and ordered the release of those arrested in connection with the explosion [Aziz Taher/Reuters]

Hit with one catastrophe after another, some man-made, some natural, Lebanon has been in a state of mourning for years. But in recent history, no disaster devastated the long-suffering country more than the massive – and as we since learned, completely preventable – explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020.

On that fateful day, a fire at the Beirut port caused the detonation of some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, which had been improperly stored in a port warehouse for some years. The resulting explosion, believed to be one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history, ripped through the Lebanese capital, killing at least 218 people, injuring more than 7,000 and leaving some 300,000 displaced.

It has been more than two years since the blast, but its victims are yet to find any justice.

The ruling elites, who paved the way for the blast by allowing explosive materials to be precariously stored in a dense population centre, now appear to care more about saving their positions and reputations than delivering justice and accountability to the victims.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the blast, Lebanese authorities not only failed to properly support citizens who have been injured and displaced, but also made every effort to hinder the probe into the tragedy. The investigation had to be suspended in December 2021 due to the numerous legal challenges raised by prominent suspects as well as strong pressure from influential political factions.

Some 13 months later, in January 2023, Tarek Bitar, the judge tasked with leading the probe, surprised the nation by announcing his decision to continue with the investigation and to charge the Lebanese prime minister at the time of the blast, Hassan Diab, and two other former ministers with homicide with probable intent. Several other top officials, including the country’s public prosecutor, Ghassan Oweidat, and the former head of its domestic intelligence agency, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, were also charged in connection with the explosion.

The charges briefly led to hopes that the truth about what caused this catastrophe may be revealed and those personally responsible for the explosion may eventually be held accountable. Regrettably, however, just a few days later, Prosecutor General Oweidat filed counter-charges against Bitar and ordered the release of all suspects detained in connection with the case. Now the future of the probe is once again uncertain and the victims of the blast are yet again left wondering whether they will ever find justice.

It is disappointing that the charges brought against Lebanese officials in positions of power have come to nothing. Their prosecution would have undoubtedly been a step towards accountability – and an essential one at that.

But we should not make the mistake of centring all efforts for justice on the prosecution of half a dozen or so individuals. Focussing too much on them runs the risk of creating the impression that once Lebanon’s “bad guys” are charged, prosecuted and imprisoned, justice will prevail and life will return to normal.

This is not the case.

The truth is that Lebanon’s sectarian structures feed these “bad guys,” and enable their crimes and cronyism. Successful prosecutions and individual accountability are crucial, but treating them as a panacea leads to the state avoiding much-needed structural reforms that would address its chronic problems and prevent the repeat of such tragedies.

So the conversation on the Beirut blast should be centred not on the alleged culpability of half a dozen ministerial, judicial, and security officials, but on the corrupt state culture that enabled their deadly crimes.

The explosion, after all, was not a mistake or an anomaly. It was a massacre caused by corruption, negligence and impunity. It was the consequence of Lebanon’s greedy political class being allowed to wield unchecked power for decades.

But Lebanon’s kleptocracy was not the sole culprit of this catastrophe, either. The international community’s indifference to Lebanese suffering and inaction in the face of chronic corruption also played a role in this tragedy.

Global powers, from the United States and France to Saudi Arabia, enabled the corruption and mismanagement of the Lebanese establishment through their donations, financial support and protections, paving the way for the Beirut blast.

There is no simple solution to Lebanon’s myriad problems. Extensive systemic change is the only way to ensure the country does not continue to suffer preventable, man-made catastrophes. But the events of the past two years clearly showed the Lebanese political class will not end impunity and corruption voluntarily. Systemic reforms can only come if the international community applies meaningful pressure on the Lebanese state and the elites controlling it.

Global powers, and especially the US as Lebanon’s biggest donor, have to demand accountability from the Lebanese state and insist on a thorough, fair and meaningful investigation into the Beirut blast. They should put their support behind Judge Bitar and ensure that he is not silenced and victimised by the powerful elite. More importantly, other countries need to stop providing lifelines to Lebanon’s corrupt elites through their donations and other offers of financial and political support.

This is not a call for sanctions – sanctions have harmed the Lebanese people and have not served as a deterrent to corruption or negligence. This is a call for the international community to change the way it engages with Lebanon – a call for it to end its partnership with the political establishment and start a new, direct and honest relationship with Lebanese civil society.

Two years after the devastating blast, those who deserve the world’s support, understanding and aid are not the members of Lebanon’s all-powerful political class, but the Lebanese citizens who lost everything because of their leaders’ negligence, corruption and incompetence.

Today, as Lebanese people continue their quest for justice and accountability, no one else but them should be at the centre of the global conversation about their country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.