On Aug. 4, 2020, one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history devastated Lebanon’s capital, claiming more than 200 lives, injuring thousands, displacing an estimated 300,000 people, and causing billions of dollars in damage in the bankrupt country. Three years on, Hezbollah, with the support of Lebanon's political elite, has managed to obstruct and even quash the domestic judicial process for holding those responsible for the blast accountable and delivering justice to both victims and a battered nation. Politicians and security officials summoned by the judge investigating the matter not only remain at large but continue to carry out their public functions as if nothing happened. With the domestic investigation in tatters, the international community must uphold its responsibility toward the Lebanese people by enabling a U.N. fact-finding mission to investigate the blast, sanctioning those responsible for obstructing justice, and making ending impunity the centerpiece of international mediation on the Lebanese crisis.

The Beirut port blast encapsulates all that is broken about Lebanon, factors that not only led to the meltdown of 2019 but have also prevented any resolution of the crisis ever since: unchecked militia rule, military assistance to the Syrian regime, a corrupt political class and bureaucracy beholden to Hezbollah, and a judiciary unable to perform its most basic functions. If the international community is serious about resolving the Lebanese crisis, it should make addressing the issue of justice and accountability for the explosion its utmost priority.

But the blast is not simply a domestic matter. The Port of Beirut, as the blast exposed, has become an unregulated arena for international arms smuggling, with credible information suggesting the explosive material was intended for the Assad regime. Beirut's once bustling port is a site of international commerce and transit, and storing explosive material there in such dangerous quantities ought to be considered a threat to international peace and security.

The local investigation into the blast, led by Judge Tarek Bitar, marks a rare but important reminder that there are still courageous actors inside Lebanon fighting to recapture the state and restore the integrity of key national institutions. Yet, as the recent declaration of the European Parliament notes, Hezbollah and its allies managed to nullify the workings of the domestic investigation by filing — in clear abuse of the law — 21 legal cases against Judge Bitar, as well as using violence in an “organized attack” on the outskirts of the area where the chief judiciary operates. This makes clear the limitations of these domestic efforts in the absence of robust international support to counterbalance the disproportionate and illiberal power of political violence that is suppressing justice and eroding any credibility of a functional democratic state.

Families of the victims and other advocates for justice, including 162 Lebanese and international human rights organization, have responded to this roadblock by pressing for the U.N. Human Rights Council to pass a resolution establishing an independent and impartial investigation into the blast. In the absence of an unobstructed local investigation, such an international fact-finding mission could prove to be a critical pathway to determining the truth and delineating individual and state responsibility for the blast.

International investigations like the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), whose verdict — that Hezbollah was involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — was postponed due to the blast, marked the only time in Lebanon’s long history of political violence where the truth has been uncovered despite persistent obstruction and even the assassination of Wissam Eid, a senior Lebanese intelligence officer who provided critical information. While international diplomacy since then has largely deprioritized accountability in the pursuit of short-term stability and ostensible de-escalation, the evidence compiled by the STL has been the only resource to push back against misinformation as it firmly and irrefutably establishes Hezbollah’s responsibility for assassinating former Prime Minister Hariri.

The experience of the STL also offers a lesson on the efficacy of international mechanisms in foiling local spoilers’ obstruction tactics. In 2007, when Speaker Nabih Berri refused to convene parliament to avoid ratifying an agreement between the United Nations and the Lebanese government to form a special tribunal for Lebanon, the U.N. Security Council bypassed the orchestrated political paralysis by adopting U.N. Resolution 1757 and implementing an agreement under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. The U.N. today could similarly circumvent state obstruction by establishing a fact-finding mission through a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution without the consent of the government of Lebanon, which already refused calls for an international investigation under former President Michel Aoun.

Three years after the Port of Beirut blast, those tasked with the responsibility of maintaining international peace and security must give the explosion the attention it deserves. In response to the documented obstruction of the local investigation and the inability of the Lebanese state to ensure it can operate free from intimidation, there is an international responsibility to ensure an impartial fact-finding mission can establish the truth. There is also an international responsibility to use more robust measures, namely targeted sanctions, to contain rather than enable spoilers obstructing justice. The lessons of the past three calamitous years have irrefutably demonstrated that the only way out of Lebanon’s compounded crises lies not in forced tribal “consensus” or unsustainable quid pro quos — ideas that led to the catastrophe in the first place — but rather in addressing the centrality of accountability and rule of law. Of all of Lebanon’s numerous pressing issues, no stronger case can be made for ending impunity than by holding those responsible for the Beirut blast accountable.


Fadi Nicholas Nassar is an assistant professor in political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University and the U.S.-Lebanon Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Saleh El Machnouk is a lecturer in political science at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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