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Beirut – a tragedy that demands change

The week in corruption, 7 August 2020

Protesters in downtown Beirut on 9 August 2020 demanding accountability for the tragic explosion (Photo: Hiba Al Kallas / Shutterstock)

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This week, a terrible tragedy befell Lebanon when an explosion hit the port area of its capital city, Beirut. We are extremely saddened by the loss of life and destruction.

The devastation caused is indescribable. The blast has killed at least 154 people, injured close to 5,000 and left 300,000 people homeless. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims and the people of Beirut.

Lebanon was already undergoing a period of tumult while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic crisis deepened by a corrupt and dysfunctional administration.

Although investigations are still underway, it has been stated that the blast was caused by several thousand tonnes of ammonium nitrate – a dual-use fertiliser and explosive that is reportedly banned in Lebanon but had been stored in a warehouse at the Beirut port since 2013.

Why was explosive material stored without proper safety measures for over six years in a densely populated city?

Lebanese authorities have so far made conflicting statements. The public and commentators suspect that negligence, corruption and incompetence by the Lebanese bureaucracy are behind this avoidable disaster.

Surely there are suspicions, and what could help is an open and transparent investigation, supported by independent technical experts who would be able to understand what happened.
Julien Courson Executive Director, Transparency International Lebanon

Together with Transparency International in Lebanon, we are calling for a thorough probe that would reveal to what extent corruption was to blame for the disaster.

The investigations should span other jurisdictions, too. It has been reported that the ship transporting dangerous chemicals from Georgia to Mozambique back in 2013 sailed under the Moldovan flag but was owned and chartered by companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions. Journalists have identified a Cyprus-based Russian man as the owner of the cargo.

It is critical that the causes of this disaster are identified in an independent and transparent way as soon as possible. Once the facts have been established, those found responsible must be held accountable.

Statement on Beirut explosion

This would not be the first time that corruption may have contributed to a tragic disaster.

In January 2019, the collapse of a dam in Brumadinho, Brazil killed 270 people, and caused a huge loss of aquatic life in the region. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Transparency International Brazil have since then exposed that executives at Vale, the mining giant responsible for the dam project, had known for over a year that the dam was at risk for failing. They also reportedly used covert lobbying tactics for the regulators and legislators to downgrade the dam’s risk level.

Three years ago, we were mourning the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in London, United Kingdom. There the companies involved in the project reportedly had knowledge of sub-par material used for refurbishing of the tower and that it posed a fire risk. And yet, more than 70 people still lost their lives, and many more lost their homes.

People of Lebanon are demanding change.

Year after year, Lebanon has received low scores on our Corruption Perceptions Index which measures public sector corruption.

Our Global Corruption Barometer – Middle East and North Africa 2019 showed that Lebanon now has the highest overall bribery rate in the region, at 41 per cent. Most people in Lebanon – 87 per cent – also think their government is doing a bad job at fighting corruption.

The 10th edition of the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Middle East and North Africa, published by Transparency International, presents a comprehensive set of public opinion data on citizens’ views on corruption and direct experiences of bribery in six countries across the region.


There is also evidence of this in the streets. Since October 2019, Lebanon has seen a series of massive protests against corruption and ineffective governance. In the wake of this week’s tragedy, they are out on the streets again.

And we must stand with them not just in solidarity but also in rightful anger.

Transparency International will continue to demand full transparency and full accountability. We will also remain vigilant to ensure that this tragedy transforms the country – for the better.

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