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“They Killed Us from the Inside”: U.N. Inquiry Demanded into Officials’ Culpability in Beirut Blast

StoryAugust 05, 2021
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One year after the Beirut port explosion, a new Human Rights Watch report implicates senior Lebanese officials in the disaster that killed 218 people, wounded 7,000 others and destroyed vast swaths of the city. The blast on August 4, 2020, was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. It resulted from the detonation of hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been sitting in a hangar at the port for years while multiple government officials who knew about the highly explosive chemicals did nothing. “We didn’t find any Lebanese official who took any responsibility for securing the port and removing the ammonium nitrate,” says Human Rights Watch researcher Aya Majzoub. “The levels of corruption and negligence that we found through this documentation was really just shocking.” We also speak with Nisreen Salti, economics professor at the American University of Beirut, who says the port explosion is part of a decades-long pattern of “negligence and corruption and collapse” in Lebanon. “What the port explosion has done, instead of being a turning point or a moment of reckoning, has just pushed us further into the abyss of total economic freefall.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Security forces in Lebanon fired water cannons and tear gas at protesters marking one year since the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut that killed 218 people, injured 7,000, destroyed or damaged 300,000 homes — one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. But so far, no one in the political leadership has been held accountable for leaving over 2,700 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate fertilizer unattended at Beirut’s port.

This comes as a new report by Human Rights Watch implicates senior Lebanese officials for failing to protect the public. This is Paul Naggear, who spoke this week about how his 3-year-old daughter Alexandra was at home with her mother Tracy when they heard the blast. Tracy tried to shield Alexandra, but a shockwave from the explosion forced them across the room. They were knocked unconscious. Her husband Paul came home to find them badly injured and unconscious, but alive. Their daughter died days later in the hospital. He said officials should have done more to prevent her death.

PAUL NAGGEAR: They had 40 minutes, and they did not react. I want to try to put myself in the shoes of Michel Aoun, for instance, and just taking an example. What was he thinking at this time? So, he’s sitting at home, you know, or in his palace, turn on the TV and looks at smoke coming out of the harbor. He’s a past brigadier in the army, specializes in weaponry, and he looks at these images. He’s the president of the country and supposedly the “father of all” — “bay al-kull,” they call it in Arabic. What does a human being think when he looks at that? In my opinion, these people waited and watched for 40 minutes, waited for us to die. …

When Tracy and I were carrying our daughter that had a huge edema, you know, down on the street, destroyed streets of Gemmayzeh, in our neighborhood, and looking, watching people on the floor dead, trying to make a way to the first hospital, then to the Red Cross post, then to the next hospital, I had to take my dying daughter on a scooter. And Tracy was with three broken ribs, four broken vertebrae, an edema on her face, detached lungs, had to go on a hitchhiking to the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Naggear, recounting what happened one year ago in the Port of Beirut explosion.

For more, we go to Beirut, Lebanon, to speak with Aya Majzoub, the Lebanon and Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch, who co-authored the new report, “'They Killed Us from the Inside': An Investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Thank you for joining us from Lebanon, where mass protests broke out yesterday. You were there in the streets. If you can describe the scene there and then put it in the context of the findings of your report, Aya?

AYA MAJZOUB: Thank you for having me on today.

The protests yesterday were hopeful. They were the biggest protests that we’ve had in over a year in Lebanon. Thousands of people came out to demand justice and accountability for the Beirut blast. They came from all parts of the country, converging at the port to hear statements from the families of those who died in the explosion. There was a moment of silence at exactly 6:08 p.m., and then people headed over to Parliament, where there were some skirmishes between security forces, who were securing the perimeter of Parliament, and protesters, who were trying to storm in.

Now, Parliament, the seat of Parliament, is very — it was very significant for protesters yesterday, because the Parliament is currently not lifting immunity that would allow the judicial investigator investigating the Beirut blast to charge and interrogate former ministers and parliamentarians implicated in the Beirut blast.

Protesters channeled their anger at the seat of Parliament, and they were met with brute force. The security forces used very large amounts of tear gas. They shot rubber bullets at protesters, in violation of international norms. They even shot rubber bullets at at least two members of the media who were covering the protests. They used water cannons against protesters.

And it’s really important to note that the use of force by the security forces was not only aimed at securing the perimeter of Parliament. It seemed to be aimed at ending the protests and dispersing the protesters. They were firing tear gas into crowds containing families, women and children, who were just standing and chanting peacefully. There was absolutely no need for those peaceful protests to be dispersed. It really was quite a show of brute force on a day that was very painful for every Lebanese person, every person who was in the country when the explosion rocked the capital. I don’t think there is a single person in Beirut who wasn’t in some way impacted by the blast.

AMY GOODMAN: In your report, you find in the report, reviewing official documents, doing multiple interviews with top officials, including the president, the caretaker prime minister, the head of the country’s state security — talk about what you found and what you’re calling for now.

AYA MAJZOUB: The findings — I mean, there were rumors, since the explosion happened, that high-level officials were aware of the ammonium nitrate. But just seeing all of the evidence in one place, seeing how many times these high-level officials were warned not only about the presence of the ammonium nitrate in the port, but the dangers that ammonium nitrate could pose to public safety — we didn’t find any Lebanese official who took any responsibility for securing the port and for removing the ammonium nitrate and ensuring that the public was not harmed by the impacts of the ammonium nitrate. The levels of corruption and negligence that we found through this documentation was really just shocking.

And what was even more shocking was the interviews that we conducted with these high-level officials. There really didn’t seem to be any sense of remorse or accountability. Every senior official that we met with was very quick to dismiss the allegations against them, say that they acted within the powers that they had, and just point the fingers at other people. Nobody took responsibility. Nobody apologized. There was such a callousness that came through in these interviews with the high-level officials that I just found very unsettling.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re calling for the U.N. to get involved to do the investigation?

AYA MAJZOUB: Yes, we’re calling for the Human Rights Council at the United Nations to send an investigative mission to Lebanon to investigate what — why the ammonium nitrate was in Lebanon in the first place, who knew about the ammonium nitrate in the port and failed to act, and then what triggered the explosion last year on August the 4th. And the investigative mission should very clearly define what violations the Lebanese state committed against its population, particularly the violation of the right to life. We’re also calling for this fact-finding body or investigative mission to propose recommendations to reform the port system and the customs system, the judicial system to ensure that something like this can never happen again and that the justice system in Lebanon is better equipped to be able to deal with investigations of this magnitude.

AMY GOODMAN: Aya Majzoub, I want to thank you for being with us, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher for Human Rights Watch. We’ll link to that report, “'They Killed Us from the Inside': An Investigation into the August 4 Beirut Blast.”

In 20 seconds, we’ll be back to look at the economic collapse in Lebanon. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! As we continue our coverage of Lebanon, we end today’s show with Nisreen Salti, economics professor at the American University of Beirut. Mass protests yesterday following the year anniversary of the explosion in the Port of Beirut that killed over 200 people, injured thousands, displaced so many hundreds of thousands.

Nisreen, we only have a few minutes. Can you talk about the economic collapse we’re seeing right now in Beirut, in Lebanon overall?

NISREEN SALTI: Sure. In fact, in the context of the port explosion, it’s important to note that as gruesome and horrific and traumatic as the explosion was in terms of magnitude and amplitude, it actually fits in with the general trend of negligence and corruption and collapse that we’ve been experiencing for months, very rapidly, before the explosion and for years — for a few decades, actually. And so, what the explosion does, in the context of the economic collapse, is it just accelerates the downfall. It accelerates the downward spiral.

So, just on a few basic metrics, to compare where we were a year ago, just before the August 4th explosion of 2020 — and we were already well into economic crisis, into a few months of economic crisis by then. So, the overall price level, for instance, since the explosion, is up by 234%. The minimum wage is half of what it was in real dollar terms. Today we have the lowest minimum wage in the world. The hours of electricity supplied by the state company were around 10 to 12 hours per day in the capital a year ago. Today they’re, at most, two hours a day countrywide. And it’s becoming increasingly impossible to afford diesel fuel for private generators in order to compensate for the lack of electricity, because the price of diesel fuel on the black market is 18-fold what it was a year ago. The price of a basic food basket has tripled. The price of gasoline for cars has tripled, and it’s also very difficult to find.

So, actually, this economic collapse, which was already underway, what the port explosion has done, instead of being a turning point or a moment of reckoning, it’s just pushed us further into the abyss of total economic freefall.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Nisreen, for joining us. Nisreen Salti, economics professor at the American University of Beirut. And you can go to Democracy Now! when we spoke to her last, as she went more deeply into the crisis that Lebanon is facing today.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff. Special thanks to Julie Crosby. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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