Human Rights Watch today accused the Lebanese authorities of "criminal negligence" and a violation of the right to life, after it revealed in an investigation the failure of political and security officials to follow up on the case of the "ammonium nitrate" shipment that led to the explosion of the port of Beirut a year ago.
The organization recommended imposing sanctions on those responsible and for the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the disaster that left at least 214 victims and more than 6,500 injured, and resulted in 2,750 tons of "ammonium nitrate" that remained stored for years at the 12th crossing in the port.
In a detailed 126-page report, the organization documented the mistakes and omissions committed by officials and political and security officials in the way they managed the “ammonium nitrate” shipment since its arrival at the port on board the Rossos ship in 2013 until the explosion.
The organization presents this report in a press conference that began in Beirut.
In addition to its interviews with officials, the organization published dozens of correspondences between several bodies from the port administration, the customs directorate, port employees, the two organs of the General Directorate of Public Security and State Security, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, and the Ministry of Finance, all the way to judges, the army leadership, the president of the republic and the prime minister.
Media investigations, including an AFP investigation, showed that officials, including the President of the Republic and security and military leaders, were aware of the dangers of storing this substance in the port, without doing anything.
Human Rights Watch reported that "the
evidence indicates that many Lebanese officials were, at the very least, criminally negligent under Lebanese law in their handling of the shipment, which created an unreasonable risk to life."
She added, "Official documents show that some government officials tacitly anticipated and accepted the risk of death posed by the presence of ammonium nitrate in the port," explaining that "under local law, this act could amount to intentional and/or unintentional murder."
The report continued: "Under international human rights law, a state's failure to act to prevent foreseeable dangers to life violates the right to life."
Although several documents showed the dangers of "ammonium nitrate" to public safety, some correspondence failed to clarify them, only referring to the environmental impact. Several documents also show the failure of competent authorities and their omission of necessary steps that could have been taken to ensure the safety of materials or their destruction.
The materials were stored alongside "flammable or explosive" materials, the investigation showed.
The army command was satisfied with reporting that it did not need these materials, although it was responsible for approving the import, export and re-export of ammonium nitrate if the nitrogen content in it exceeded 33.5 percent, as was the case in the stored shipment.
The organization accused the ministries of finance, public works and transport of "failing to communicate or conduct an appropriate investigation" into the shipment and its risks, and none of the security services operating in the port took appropriate steps to ensure the safety of materials or to develop an emergency plan or precautionary measures in the event of a fire.
Months before the explosion, the State Security Service stated in a report prepared and seen by AFP that the ignition of these materials could lead to a devastating explosion. He later informed the authorities of its seriousness.
The organization considered that the State Security Agency was late in informing officials of the results of its investigation, noting that the customs administration could have disposed of the materials, but failed to take appropriate measures.
Then-Prime Minister Hassan Diab first learned of the existence of the shipment in June, and told Human Rights Watch that he had asked State Security to prepare a report within days. He added, "I forgot about it later and no one followed up on the matter. There are disasters that happen every day."
On July 20, President Michel Aoun and Diab received a brief "incomplete" report from the State Security Agency on the dangers of "ammonium nitrate in case it was ignited or stolen.
In its report, Human Rights Watch pointed the finger at Aoun, Diab, State Security Director General Tony Saliba, former army chief Jean Kahwagi, former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, and former Ministers of Public Works Ghazi Zuaiter and Youssef Fenianos.
And it considered that these, and others, "failed to take the necessary measures to protect people."
Today, political immunities stand in the way of a request submitted by the judicial investigator, Tariq Bitar, to summon representatives who held ministerial positions, including Zuaiter, Khalil, and Fenianos, and leaders of security services, including Saliba. Bitar also claimed both Diab and Kahwagi.
Human Rights Watch called on the international community to impose sanctions on officials "involved in the continuing human rights abuses related to the explosion and seeking to undermine accountability."
And again recommended to the United Nations Human Rights Council to conduct an independent investigation into the explosion, noting that an independent investigation may be able to determine the spark that led to the explosion.
The organization did not answer questions related to how the explosion broke out, but it doubted whether the shipment of "ammonium nitrate" was destined for Mozambique, as the ship's shipping documents show, or whether Beirut was its actual destination.