Why Lebanon’s president refuses an international investigation into Beirut explosions

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Lebanese President Michel Aoun said last week that an international investigation into the deadly Beirut explosions would undermine his country’s sovereignty and would cover up the truth. However, one day earlier, Aoun asked his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron for satellite images of the Port of Beirut.

Now, the now-resigned government – made up of Aoun’s party, Hezbollah and their allies – may have no choice but to accept an international investigation, which could be forced under the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

R2P was endorsed by all UN member states in 2005 to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Cabinet resigned following the blasts.

Analysts, opposition figures, and protesters say that Aoun and the Lebanese political elite will cover up what happened as there is an increased possibility that the massive blasts constituted a crime against humanity, regardless of the cause.

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Although a senior UN diplomat said that this would be difficult because it would set a precedent for several other countries’ leaders to be accused of crimes against humanity, it remains an option.

Aoun and the rest of the political elite in Lebanon have collectively admitted knowing that the highly explosive ammonium nitrate was stored in the heart of the country’s capital for years.

“If the international community considers that this explosion can be qualified as a crime against humanity, which placed a civilian population under threat, R2P can be used for an independent, international investigation, regardless of government approval,” Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, said.

The downfall of the Lebanese ruling elite and Aoun’s term

Aoun, 85, has been in power since 2016. When he assumed the presidency, his slogan was “change and reform.” Speaking to reporters last week, Aoun said that there would be no internalization of the investigation because “if we can’t govern ourselves, no one can govern us.”

But successive Lebanese governments have failed to implement reforms demanded by the international community and the Lebanese people.

The international community, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) demanded economic and other reforms to clamp down on rampant corruption. Diab’s government was unable to do either, thus stalling negotiations for IMF aid.

Aoun also called an international investigation a “waste of time.”

But analysts believe that an international investigation would be the “final nail in the coffin” for the ruling elite, which have been in power for decades following the 1975-90 civil war.

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Another reason Lebanese officials want control of the investigations is so that they can use it politically to shield their responsible allies and supporters, Salamey said.

“They can point the finger, primarily, at their opponents and politicize investigations,” Salamey told Al Arabiya English.

Politicizing the investigations has already been seen, analysts said. On Friday, Aoun said the blasts “broke the embargo” on Lebanon.

Hezbollah and Aoun have repeatedly alleged that there is an international embargo on Lebanon due to Hezbollah’s weapons – seen as the main threat to Israel. The group had previously turned its weapons against Lebanese citizens, including on May 7, 2008, when the Lebanese government attempted to dismantle the Iran-backed group’s telecommunications system.

“There is nothing called a state”

Lebanon is an archipelago of clientelist networks, Bassel Salloukh, a political scientist at LAU, said.
Salloukh said that the most significant source of corruption in the country was the Port of Beirut.

“They [the political elite] are thinking, ‘we’ve lost our revenues,’ which is why they are worried,” he told Al Arabiya English.

Read more: Beirut explosion: Destroyed port used as quarantine center long before coronavirus

Salamey said an international investigation would dig up “a lot of dirt” on the illegal activities at the port, including smuggling to Syria. “The port, in security terms, was under the auspices of Hezbollah and other armed militias,” he said.

With the president being entrusted by the constitution and law to protect Lebanon, “he failed and, thus, is an indicted person along with the prime minister,” Salamey added.

Hezbollah and Israel

Another reason Aoun may be against an international investigation is to draw concessions from Hezbollah or Israel. As he deflected responsibility for the blasts on Friday, Aoun said he did not rule out external interference in the cause of the explosions.

US President Donald Trump and White House officials have also not ruled out an attack.

Israel and Hezbollah, which have fought numerous wars against each other, both ruled out having anything to do with the explosions.

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Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah vehemently denied having ties to the ammonium nitrate stored at the port. Yet, if there is evidence that shows an Israeli act of sabotage or attack, and if Hezbollah did not respond, it would deal a blow to the party among its support base.

“This is a political game and by not ruling out an Israeli attack, Aoun is forcing Hezbollah to give him something in the next government formed. This could mean no direct Hezbollah participation in order to relieve pressure from the US,” a third Lebanese political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “An international investigation would mean the end of Lebanon as these politicians know it.”

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