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The 2020 Beirut Blast Killed My Son. The UN Must Investigate Who Is Responsible for the Deadly Explosion

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Sarah Copland and son Isaac
The author’s two-year-old son, Isaac, was one of the youngest victims in the Beirut blast of August 2020. She and a group of international legal experts are now calling for the Human Rights Council to commission an independent investigation into the origins of the explosion and who was responsible for the earth-shattering detonation. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

The flying glass was the first thing I saw when the Port of Beirut exploded on Aug. 4, 2020. I was thrown to the ground, and my body, heavily pregnant, was riddled with shards from our shattered window. A sonic boom sounded a split-second later. Isaac, my two-year-old son, had been sitting in his highchair. One piece of glass hit him in his chest.

Not knowing what was going on, my husband, Craig, and I raced into the street to get help. It looked like a war zone. Holding Isaac, I screamed, “My baby, somebody help my baby!”

A stranger stopped and hurried us across town to find help, as the closest hospitals had also been destroyed.

It was too late. The glass that hit Isaac had pierced his little heart and lungs. He died of cardiac arrest and massive internal bleeding.

Isaac was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut blast.

Nineteen months have passed since that horrific day, and I have struggled to accept what happened to Isaac. Losing a child is the worst pain imaginable. My son was one of 218 people killed when neglected ammonium nitrate detonated in a port warehouse that was stored just 700 meters from our home, causing the largest non-nuclear explosion in global history.

Just over two months after losing Isaac, I gave birth to my second son, Ethan. We came very close to losing him as well, but he hung in there, and so I must hang on for him. But we remain tormented by Isaac’s death.

The death of a child brings with it enormous guilt. My husband and I have questioned every decision that we took, big and small, in the lead-up to the blast. I work for the United Nations on gender equality and repeatedly ask myself, why did I take up the post?

There are no answers to the questions. One thing we can do is to find out who was responsible for leaving the ammonium nitrate in the port despite clear warnings that it posed a serious threat to the city. Why was no warning issued when a fire broke out at the port? Why was no guidance provided to the population after the blast regarding which hospitals were destroyed and which could still accept patients?

It is time for the international community to investigate what happened: the blast will not fade from our collective memory. That is why a group of victims and I, working with Legal Action Worldwide, a human-rights organization led by lawyers working in fragile and conflict areas, are calling for a Human Rights Council resolution to create an independent, impartial and transparent fact-finding mission to determine the causes of the explosion and who was responsible.

Such an investigation, free from political interference and intimidation, will assist and support the efforts of the domestic investigation underway in Lebanon. So far, that hasn’t yielded any meaningful progress. Politicians and ministers, including those directly implicated in the blast, have been granted immunity. When victims and parents who lost their children like me protested this fact, we were met with riot police and tear gas.

If commissioned, such a UN probe would be far from unprecedented. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ website, UN-mandated investigations are “increasingly being used to respond to serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, whether protracted or resulting from sudden events, and to promote accountability for such violations and counter impunity.”

That describes the situation in Lebanon.

In fact, the Human Rights Council has authorized at least 34 such investigative bodies since 2006, with numerous successes.

We are seeing how important these investigations can be: the UN-backed Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, for example, presented a report to the Council in 2018. It was the first such report to request an investigation and prosecutions for grave crimes against the Rohingya people in Rakhine State. The information from that report has been instrumental in opening a full investigation by the International Criminal Court and is supporting the Gambia v. Myanmar genocide case at the International Court of Justice.

Many UN member states have requested an independent and impartial investigation for the Beirut explosion, but no country has proposed a resolution in the Human Rights Council. It’s time for a country to show genuine leadership.

Isaac was hit by shards of glass in his chest as he sat in his highchair at home, above, which was near the blast at the port of Beirut. He died immediately of cardiac arrest and internal bleeding. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

We look first to France, viewed as the West’s closest historical ally to Lebanon. The Tricolore flag hung from blown-out windows when President Emmanuel Macron, the first world leader to visit Beirut after the blast, was given a hero’s welcome in the streets.

He has since promised to help usher through economic reform in Lebanon. Despite his efforts, a combination of fund-raisers, sanctions and promises of IMF bailouts, the deadlines for reform have been missed and the country careers further into crisis.

We call on France to act in the Human Rights Council — as a righteous protector of human rights and international justice — so we can start moving toward accountability while also stabilizing and strengthening the relevant institutions in one of the few democracies in the Middle East.

Australia is my home and where I live now. We were three weeks away from leaving Lebanon to return home to have our second baby. Instead of taking Isaac to see his grandparents and cousins and to meet his new baby brother, we had to accompany his casket to Australia. He was the only Australian killed in the Beirut blast. We are also therefore lobbying the government to take a lead in the Council, which is possible even though it is not a current member.

I am also a citizen of Germany, which is a current member of the Council. I call on Germany to use its time in the Council to stand with the victims in Lebanon and support our calls for an independent investigation.

The Beirut blast families, an identity none of us wanted, are a stark symbol of the people of Lebanon, silenced and murdered by neglect and corruption. The blast will forever scar the memory of those of us who survived it and will be forever etched into the national identity and history of Lebanon.

But it can also be the starting point for genuine change for the people of Lebanon. Only 1 of the 47 members of the Human Rights Council needs to draft a resolution to request an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate the Beirut explosion. For a resolution to be passed, at least 24 countries must press green.

The Council is in session in March, June and September. France, Germany and the Netherlands, all of which had citizens killed in the explosion, could table the resolution and open the door to finding the truth.

I have been asked many times what justice means to me. No matter what I say doesn’t bring our dear, sweet Isaac back. But justice can bring the truth. I owe that to our son.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Sarah Copland has worked for the United Nations for the last five years, most recently in Beirut, where she worked on advancing gender equality and women’s rights in the Arab region.

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The 2020 Beirut Blast Killed My Son. The UN Must Investigate Who Is Responsible for the Deadly Explosion
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Hiba
Hiba
10 months ago

I am so sorry for your loss. I hope the truth will be revealed soon.. Hang strong for Ethan.
May God bless and protect him.

Celia
Celia
10 months ago

Dear Sara
I am very sorry for your loss. I was reading your words with tears in my eyes. The explosion changed our lives even if not directly affected. I feel your pain and I have written an article in the Arabic language the next morning after the explosion, which was published in alNashra al dawliah ( American daily bulletin ), titled “prosecute them for national treason.” What had happened was no less than a treason.

Please accept my deep condolences. May you find comfort in finding the truth. You have my full support in your pursuit of international investigation. Let me know if I can help in anyway through writing. I have many published articles on Lebanese civil and women rights mainly published in Annahar newspaper.
Much love
Celia Hamadeh

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