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Beirut Explosion: What History Tells Us About Accountability

By Jessica Field, on 6 August 2020

The port explosion in Beirut on Tuesday is shocking for both the scale of the disaster and the level of mismanagement that led to the catastrophe. At least 137 people are so far known to have died, more than 5,000 are injured and countless more homes and businesses have been completely destroyed. For the people of Beirut, this disaster has come at a time of deep economic crisis as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

Chemically, the port explosion was caused by the detonation of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored at a warehouse in the port for 6 years. The real cause, however, was chronic mismanagement and negligence. News reports call the Port of Beirut ‘one of the most corrupt and lucrative institutions in Lebanon’. Repeated warnings about the potential consequences of unsafe storage went unheeded.

Immediate attention in Lebanon is necessarily focused on humanitarian needs. Hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients and the Lebanese Red Cross has set up a number of first aid stations in order to triage the wounded. In the longer term, questions of responsibility, accountability and compensation will accompany moves towards recovery and rehabilitation. What might this look like for the people of Beirut?

Looking back at similar disasters in history, holding governments accountable for mismanagement and negligence has proven patchy – even when compensation has been forthcoming.

Comparisons have already been drawn between this crisis and the 1947 industrial disaster in the Port of Texas City in the United States, where a fire detonated ammonium nitrate cargo on a French-registered ship and set off multiple other fires and explosions, killing over 500 people. In the aftermath, the District Court in Texas ruled federal government negligence was evident in manufacturing, handling and export procedures. While this decision was overturned and the US Government did not take full governance responsibility, Congress passed an Act in 1955 that assumed ‘compassionate responsibility’ and provided the means for compensation to victims totalling around $17million USD. Perhaps a more relevant comparison, though, would be an earlier explosion in India.

On 14 April 1944 a British Fort ship containing cotton and ammunitions caught fire in the Victoria Dock of Bombay (now Mumbai) causing two explosions, fires and a water surge which killed 731 people. Similar to Beirut, onlookers initially feared the explosions were caused by enemy shelling, as the country was embroiled in World War II.1 Rescue and relief operations concentrated on putting out fires, pulling people (alive and dead) out of debris and aiding the injured and homeless.

Photo: Smoke following the explosions at the Bombay Docks, India, 14 April 1944

The explosions in Victoria Dock were caused by a series of intersecting errors and negligence: poor management of materials, absent watchmen, multiple failures to raise the alarm, and insufficient response capacity. The then-Viceroy of India Lord Wavell noted that ‘there is no doubt that safety precautions were broken for war reasons, and that explosives ought not to have been unloaded where they were’.2 In the aftermath, urgent questions emerged over accountability and compensation to those affected, but responsibility from relevant authorities was not forthcoming.

In these final years of British rule over India (which ended in 1947 with Indian independence), the two countries were feeling the strain of war. In the East, Bengal was reeling from a catastrophic famine caused by Churchill’s diversion of resources away from the region to maintain the war effort. Challenges across India to British authority and legitimacy had been growing for some time—often centring on the Raj’s inability to feed and protect the nation.3 It is against this backdrop that the Indian government went on reputation control and damage limitation around the Bombay port disaster, forcing a media blackout in the days afterwards and whitewashing a “Commission of Inquiry” months later.4 Responding to this censorship, the Bombay Sentinel presented a blank column on its front page stating that the space should have been occupied by news of yesterday’s ‘disastrous explosions’ in the docks. As Yasmin Khan documents in her book The Raj at War, the newspaper was suspended for this subversion.5

The Commission’s first report in September 1944 was not without its flaws but it did record that ‘a state of lamentable disorganisation and neglect’ contributed to the scale of the port explosion.6 However, the Ministry of War and Transport was reportedly furious at this evaluation and a second committee was established to revise the findings, drawing global condemnation.7 Compensation was paid to many of those affected, but the government avoided taking ultimate responsibility for the tragedy.

Looking at Beirut nearly eight decades later, mismanagement in the context of economic crisis and conflict suggests there are more echoes of the Bombay port disaster than that of Texas. Lebanon’s weak government and general corruption undoubtedly contributed to negligence around the storage and handling of these highly explosive materials in Beirut. We’ve yet to understand how neighbouring conflicts may have affected decision-making around what to do with this confiscated material, though lessons from Bombay suggest this may be critical. While Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has promised a full investigation, the country’s historically unaccountable government is unlikely to opt for an independent and transparent review.

What is certain is that this human-made disaster will only serve to exacerbate Lebanon’s deep economic and food crisis. And it may prove to be the breaking point for a country where many are calling for revolution.

Notes

  1. Yasmin Khan, The Raj at War: A People’s History of the Second World War, Vintage (2015), p.287.
  2. Lord Wavell, The Viceroy’s Journal, edited by Penderel Moon, Oxford University Press (1973), p.68
  3. Benjamin Robert Siegal, Hungry Nation: Food, famine and the making of modern India, Cambridge University Press (2018).
  4. Khan, p.288.
  5. Khan, p.288.
  6. Excerpt fromThe Hindustan Times, 12 September 1944. Round-Up Bi-weekly, Vol. II-44, no. 21. September 12 1944. P. 51. National Archives of India, Home Political/I/1944/NA/F-51-8/KW/Part-1.
  7. Wavell, p.88; Khan, p.288.

 

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