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Lebanon needs to set 'impartial, expert probe' into Beirut blast: HRW Open in fullscreen

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Lebanon needs to set 'impartial, expert probe' into Beirut blast: HRW

HRW expressed "serious concerns" about Lebanese officials' ability to conduct a credible investigation [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 August, 2020

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Human Rights Watch called on Lebanese authorities to invite international experts to conduct an independent probe into the explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday joined several rights groups in calling for an independent investigation into the Beirut blast.

The explosion in Beirut's port area killed at least 135 people and wounded 4,000 others, wreaking damage across the coastal city. The death toll is expected to climb higher as search and rescue teams continue efforts to locate dozens of missing people.

Officials said the blast was triggered by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate - an odorless crystalline substance commonly used as a fertiliser that has caused numerous industrial explosions around the world - which has been stored in a port warehouse for over six years.

Lebanon has declared a two week state of emergency in Beirut, as port officials who were responsible for storage and guarding facilities since 2014 were placed under house arrest.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun said the substance's storage was "unacceptable" and vowed the "harshest punishments" for those responsible. Many Lebanese hold the government accountable for the tragedy and see the political establishment as passing the buck.

HRW called on the Lebanese government to make way for an independent investigation led by international experts to "determine the causes and responsibility for the explosion and recommend measures to ensure it cannot happen again".

The probe should identify the reasons behind the cause of the explosion, the long-term storage of ammonium nitrate in Beirut's port, as well as the officials who knew about the chemical's placement and failed to act, HRW said.

As Lebanon prepares to investigate the exact cause of the deadly blast, concerns have been raised about the government's ability to produce an accurate or balanced report on the incident.

A special investigation committee formed by the government on Tuesday is headed by Lebanon's justice minister, the prime minister and several security chiefs.

Officials have deflected any responsibility, pointing fingers at various government agencies for failing to deal with the years-old storage of the highly combustible material.

In its statement, HRW expressed "serious concerns" about Lebanese officials' ability to conduct a "credible and transparent" probe due to a record of political interference in the judiciary.

"Given the Lebanese authorities’ repeated failure to investigate serious government failings and the public’s distrust of government institutions, an independent investigation with international experts is the best guarantee that victims of the explosion will get the justice they deserve," said Aya Majzoub, HRW Lebanon researcher.

The explosion in Beirut has caused significant damage to a city already devastated by an economic crisis that has plunged thousands into poverty.

The blast has made as many as 300,000 people homeless, Beirut's governor said.

Tuesday's disaster has piled even more pressure on Lebanon's strained health sector, which before the explosion was already struggling due to economic crisis, coupled with a wave of coronavirus cases.

HRW said the Lebanese government is "obligated" to ensure all those who are affected by the blast have immediate access to adequate shelter, as well as "access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them".

"The Lebanese government still has not disseminated consistent or accurate information about the health impact of the toxic cloud of nitrous oxide hanging over the city, and has not provided guidance for Beirut residents on how to protect themselves from air pollution," HRW stated.

HRW also noted the government has not implemented a plan to provide food assistance to Lebanon's population, of which more than half have already descended into poverty due to the economic crisis even prior to the blast.

As many countries - including France, Canada and Qatar - have begun dispatching humanitarian aid to Lebanon, HRW urged international actors to ensure any assistance "goes to those affected directly or through organisations providing life-saving assistance on the ground".

Amnesty International also called for an independent investigation into the blast on Thursday.

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