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Rights groups call for UN investigation into Beirut port explosion

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
A view shows damage at the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 4, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

A number of rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have called for an investigation by the United Nations into the devastating port explosion that claimed more than 200 lives in Lebanon's capital Beirut last year, despite rejection by Lebanese officials of an international probe into the high-profile case.

The plea was made on Tuesday as Lebanese leaders are under growing pressure at home and abroad to provide answers for the Beirut port blast that destroyed swaths of the country’s capital last August, after they rejected an international probe into the case.

"The continuing failure of the domestic process reinforces the need for an international investigation to determine the causes of the explosion and who was responsible," HRW said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The cost of such a failure includes not just the absence of justice for victims, but the... risk of further abuse and negligence by the responsible parties."

Lebanese citizens blame the deadly explosion on decades of negligence and corruption by the country's officials, none of whom have been detained over the tragedy.

"The Lebanese authorities have obstructed, evaded, and delayed the ongoing domestic investigation," Amnesty said in a separate statement, adding, "The [UN] Human Rights Council must establish an investigative or fact-finding mission into the blast to identify whether conduct by the state caused or contributed to unlawful deaths."

Moreover, 53 Lebanese, regional, and international rights groups in addition to survivors and families of the victims of the port blast have called for an international investigation into the deadly incident as Beirut dismisses calls and says the country’s judiciary could handle the probe itself.

"As we approach the one-year anniversary of the explosion, the case for such an international investigation has only strengthened," they said in a joint letter.

The UN "Human Rights Council has the opportunity to assist Lebanon to meet its human rights obligations by conducting an investigative or fact-finding mission into the blast," they added.

Following the explosion on August 4, it emerged that Lebanon's top security officials and politicians had known for years about hundreds of tons of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer stored haphazardly at the Beirut port, but had failed to take precautionary measures. 

An investigation confirmed the concerned officials had received "several written notices warning them against postponing the disposal of ammonium nitrate fertilizer."

The director of Beirut's land and maritime transport, Abdel Hafiz Kaissi, the port's director-general, Hassan Koraytem, and the customs chief, Badri Daher, are in custody over the massive blast.

The investigation has found that the blame rests mostly on Daher regarding a shipment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that authorities say caught fire and led to the fatal explosion.

The probe has so far led to the arrest of at least 25 individuals. It has yet to make public any of its findings.

The highly explosive chemicals were left at the port’s Hangar 12 for nearly seven years until they exploded on August 4, destroying large parts of the city, injuring more than 6,500 people, in addition to killing 200 others, and rendering thousands homeless.

Beirut explosion has left Lebanon’s economy, which is already reeling from multiple crises, including the breakdown of its banking system, spiraling inflation and the coronavirus pandemic, in tatters. 

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