Updated: Aug 31
August 25, 2020
The Geneva Observer
In the wake of the Beirut Port Explosion, the UN must harness the moment to shift from disaster response to prevention and highlight the importance of tackling corruption and mismanagement. A lot of those efforts can be directed from Geneva.
There are multiple ways to tell the Beirut Port Explosion story. It is a story being told against a backdrop of rampant corruption and negligent mismanagement at all levels of the Lebanon’s government. But it is also the story of shady and reckless business practices, enabled by a murky system of international shipping rules and a practice known as “flags of convenience.” As large parts of International Geneva mobilize to help Beirut, we decided to take a closer look at how a ship built in Japan in 1986 ended up stranded in Beirut before its cargo, moved ashore, exploded, devastating the Lebanese capital. And how this particular angle ties into a much larger story. It is a story the UN must harness to shift mindsets and governance cultures towards making real investments in prevention.
The UN’s immediate response was swift. It mobilised and coordinated the international communities’ response and provision of aid. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is spearheading a drive for 565 million dollars’ worth of emergency funding. And many other UN agencies and offices have mobilised to help in the response, including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the UN Children’s Fund, and the UN World Food Programme. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the “international community to step up and help Lebanon and its people at their time of crisis.”
The international community doesn’t fare so well when it comes to preventing disasters. For the Geneva-based UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the renewed scrutiny on shipping industry practices is the kind of initiative that could help tilt the balance from reaction to prevention.
Around 17:54 pm local time on August 4, 2020 Beirut witnessed one of the largest non-nuclear blast in history as over 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded. The explosion, its epicentre so close to residential areas, killed well over 200 people, injuring 5,000 others. It has left over 300,000 people displaced from their homes and an estimated repair bill of around 15 billion dollars.
The shock turned quickly into profound wrath: Lebanese—already angered by years of discontent, and a year of protests against corruption—started to realise the all too likely reality: that for years the authorities were aware of the danger … and did nothing.
President Michel Aoun called the failure to act “unacceptable” and pledged “to hold those responsible and those who were negligent accountable and serve them the most severe punishment”. The officials involved in storing or guarding the cargo have been put under house arrest pending an investigation. It was obvious that the government was trying to protect itself and to defuse tension by arresting low-level public servants.
Executive Magazine—a leading economic, financial, and business magazine in Lebanon—didn’t buy it. ‘FUCK OFF’ was the title of its editorial last week. Its editors wrote: “We are simply disrespectfully addressing ourselves to the corrupted system of the old Lebanon’s clientelist reality and rentier economy. … The streets were transformed to resemble the ugliness that you represent. … This Beirut looks like you.”
In 2002, a ship built in Japan in 1986 and named Daifuku Maru No.8, was sold and renamed. Between 2002 and 2013, the ship’s owner, flag and name changed over half a dozen times. In 2013, now almost at the age of 30, it was called the MV Rhosus and was flying a Moldovan flag. It had been bought by a Cyprus-based Russian businessman making his first foray into shipping.
In July 2013, the ship was inspected by port authorities in Seville. Fourteen separate deficiencies were found, from poor fire safety to corroded decks. Yet by September, it was in the port of Batumi (Georgia) picking up over 2,700 tonnes of dangerous cargo that it was going to transport to a small firm in Mozambique specialising in commercial explosives manufacturing. Reportedly, by this time, it had a hole in its hull that required water to be continuously pumped out to stop it from sinking. At some point during this time the crew walked off the ship when its owner did not pay their wages. A new crew nevertheless joined the ship as it made its way south through the Dardanelles, and stopped for several weeks in Athens as the owner looked for additional cargo to fund its travel through the Suez Canal.
The owner found some heavy road-building machinery in Beirut, and the MV Rhosus duly arrived on November 21, 2013. However, when the cargo was brought onboard, the deck started to buckle under its weight. The captain refused to take the machinery and the effort was abandoned.
On February 4, 2014, before the ship could leave, it was seized for breaching International Maritime Organization's standards and unpaid port fees (the IMO is the UN’s specialized agency responsible for the safety and security of shipping) . While most of the crew were allowed to disembark, a core group including the captain were essentially held hostage in the negotiations as the Lebanese port authorities did not want to take responsibility for the cargo. The owner though could no longer be contacted and had effectively abandoned the ship.
The world of shipping has come under renewed scrutiny following the disaster, and particularly the use of flags of convenience—when ship owners register their ships in different countries where regulations or enforcement of them are more lax. As with offshore tax havens, flags of convenience often results in jurisdiction shopping, in obscuring true ownership and thus helping to avoid liability. International Maritime Laws and domestic laws require vessels be insured for things like environmental damage. However, a Reuters investigation could not find any indication that the ship was insured and was unable to determine for sure who its owner actually was.
Ships are, in fact, often abandoned by owners. The International Labour Organization (ILO) maintains, in partnership with the IMO, a database of abandoned seafarers, and the Federation of National Associations of Ship Brokers and Agents stated mid-June that it estimates around 400,000 seafarers are currently stranded due to COVID-19 related entry restrictions at ports. The economic crisis that has ensued has meant shipping companies have also been abandoning their vessels, too.
The MV Rhosus’ remaining crew were permitted to disembark after successful legal action. The court ruled in their favour in part because they had shown imminent danger due to the nature of the cargo stored in the ship’s holds. At some point between then and the end of 2015, the ammonium nitrate was moved to a warehouse. The MV Rhosus was left where it was moored in the port of Beirut. It sank there in 2018.
While in an ideal international world, the ship should never have been there, it is nevertheless troubling that, to a certain extent, the international system was working: Lebanese authorities stopped the ship, enforced international rules and standards, and seized its cargo. And, although it is impossible for anyone to have predicted this particular disaster, the international community had been calling attention to Lebanon’s crisis of corruption and mismanagement for some time.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had issued repeated warnings on the situation in Lebanon ( November 26, 2019; January 21, 2020; May 1, 2020), mainly relating to the violent repression of protests by security forces and rampant government corruption. Human Rights Watch released a statement on Lebanon’s 2020 UPR submission on August 3rd, 2020—the day before the explosion. It said that Lebanon had “failed to make progress on a number of recommendations from its prior reviews,” that “Lebanon’s authorities are failing to address a massive economic and political crisis that is endangering citizens” and that the “Authorities detained and charged individuals for speech critical of government officials, especially in relation to corruption allegations.” The number of recommendations coming out of the UN organisms were staking up, and Lebanon was doing worse and worse in the Global Integrity Report, the Global Competitiveness Index, the Open Budget Index, and the World Bank’s governance indicators.
The International community must, of course, ask itself what more it could have done. For Mami Mitzutori, the head of the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, however, it's already clear where it can do better: talk more about prevention and risk reduction. Headquartered here in Geneva, the UNDRR’s mission is to change the focus towards behaviour change, and to reduce and mitigate the risks from disasters before they strike so that there is less mortality, economic and social loss.
UNDDR’s 2019 Global Assessment Report states: “To allow humankind to embark on a development trajectory that is at least manageable, and at best sustainable and regenerative (consistent with the aspirations for 2030), a fundamental re-examination and redesign of how to deal with risk is essential. ... While the onus rests with States, the responsibility to prevent and reduce risk is a shared one. Risk is ultimately the result of decisions that we all make, either individually or collectively. The consequences of inaction in addressing the systemic nature of risk to individuals, organizations and society are becoming increasingly apparent. Even half a planet away, risk that is allowed to grow unchecked—and in plain sight—can affect us.”
In her statement on the Beirut disaster, the UNDRR’s head made the clear link between disaster reduction and sustainable development ("disaster risk-informed sustainable development"): “Disasters undermine sustainable development; they contribute to ongoing poverty and impact on peace and security.” In hours, a disaster can wipe out the progress of decades. But similarly, sustainable development, with its emphasis on good governance should reduce the risks from hazards.
For Lebanon, this disaster has come on top of a pandemic, and on top of a deep social, political and economic crisis.
Executive Magazine’s ‘FUCK OFF’ editorial imagines four possible futures for Lebanon: a worst case scenario (a war torn country), an almost as-bad scenario (a failed state of Lebanon), a least-worst-case scenario (a poor and reduced Lebanon, in the pocket of the regional geopolitical power paying for its development), and a Utopian best-case scenario. The latter “Utopian hope scenario of peace and prosperity” requires, sine die¸ a solid platform from which to rebuild.
UNDP has partnered with Executive Magazine to “advance national dialogue on efforts against corruption in Lebanon through evidence-based analysis and actionable recommendations.” Its resident representative in Lebanon said that “curbing corruption will be a cornerstone for the broader reforms needed to respond to the country’s deepening economic and financial crisis.” Its immediate support is prioritizing action to ensure transparency and accountability in the responses and is focusing its aid on restoring livelihoods and small businesses, debris management, and access to justice.
The rest of International Geneva should also consider how it can best support and help build that solid platform—and try to reach that Utopian ideal.