Sarah Copland, whose two-year-old son Isaac died in one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, says the fight for justice has been grueling.
This week marked a small breakthrough for the families of more than 200 people who died in the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, after authorities in Lebanon repeatedly obstructed an investigation.
Australia took the lead on behalf of 38 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for a “speedy, impartial, credible and transparent investigation” into the port blast that also injured more than 7,000 people and damaged 77,000 homes.
A key question is how more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was allowed to be stored unsafely along with other hazardous materials such as fireworks – and whether authorities had ignored warnings about the hazard for years before the blast.
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Copland’s son Isaac was having dinner in his high chair at the family home, about 700 meters from the port, when the blast shattered the windows.
“It means a lot to my family that Australia is not just a signatory, but the leading country of this declaration,” said Copland, a Melbourne-based UN official who is part of a network of families working on international fact-finding Mission.
But she said it took two and a half years of “persistent and relentless lobbying” by families, in coordination with international organizations, just to push through this week’s Human Rights Council statement.
Families had also spent countless hours writing letters, holding meetings, speaking at panels, writing articles, protesting, traveling and more. Copland said all of that work has “taken a tremendous toll on us,” but she has vowed to keep fighting.
“I think for me my main drive is for Isaac and for all the other sacrifices,” she said.
“As a mother, when he was born I was preparing to spend a lifetime caring for him, supporting him and doing whatever I could for him. That was cut short and that’s my way of being able to keep doing what I can do for him.
“I think we face an uphill battle and there is no guarantee of success. But I think the message needs to be sent that what happened was a human rights violation, something that deserves justice and accountability. It’s not okay what happened.”
Judge Tarek Bitar, in charge of investigating the blast, suddenly reopened his inquiry in January after it had stalled for more than a year.
But Bitar sparked an immediate row with his decision to press charges against Lebanon’s top prosecutor, two senior intelligence officers and a number of other officials for obstruction of justice. It prompted Attorney General Ghassan Oueidat to order the release of all suspects.
On Wednesday, Australia’s Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Amanda Gorely, read a statement to the Human Rights Council, saying 38 countries were concerned that the investigation in Lebanon was ongoing and “due to systemic obstruction, interference, intimidation and a political impasse”.
“We urge Lebanon to comply with its international human rights obligations and to take all necessary measures to ensure the full independence and impartiality of the Lebanese judiciary in law and practice,” Gorely said.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the victims and their families deserved justice. She promised to “continue to work internationally to ensure that those responsible are held accountable”.
Human Rights Watch hailed the move by governments “from Australia to Costa Rica to Japan” as “a significant step in the right direction.”
Amnesty International said the statement “sends a clear message to the Lebanese authorities that their shameful efforts to obstruct and undermine the domestic investigation have not gone unnoticed”.
There are people who had the power to prevent this and they didn’t and they must be held accountable
The Lebanese embassy in Canberra said it was unable to comment on the matter, but added: “Lebanon values its long-standing and ongoing strong ties with Australia.”
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Robert Mardini, said the humanitarian consequences of the blast were immense. Speaking to Guardian Australia during a visit to Canberra on Thursday, Mardini said hospitals immediately received a “massive influx of wounded”.
“Apart from the enormous physical scars of this bomb blast, we should not underestimate the psychological impact it had on the entire country and its people, who have been impacted by decades of conflict, instability and economic hardship,” he said.
“It was an additional terrible layer of devastation for a country that has absorbed many shocks in the past.”
Australia’s statement to the Human Rights Council acknowledged that Lebanon was experiencing “severe financial and economic crises”. The statement said the 38 signatories wanted a proper investigation into the root causes of the “catastrophic event” at the port of Beirut in order to “prevent a similar tragedy from occurring in the future.”
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Copland said she hopes the statement sends a message to Lebanon “that they cannot further obstruct the investigation.” But she remained pessimistic about the prospects for comprehensive action at the national level.
The next step should be an international fact-finding mission, Copland said. Evidence collected from such an exercise could be used in domestic criminal proceedings. It could also support family-initiated lawsuits and serve as a basis for other countries to impose sanctions on anyone involved.
“I continue to urge the Australian Government not to make this statement last, but to continue to push to garner broad international support for an international inquiry,” Copland said.
“If I wasn’t fighting, it would be kind of an agreement and I’d be like, ‘Okay, it was just one of those things,’ but that’s not the case. There are people who had the power to prevent this and they didn’t and they must be held accountable.
“And so I just keep fighting for Isaac because he deserves so much better.”