Beirut Blast: How a Legal Dispute resulted in the loss of thousand in Lebanon’s Beirut

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On 23/09/2013, Rhosus, a ship carrying the Moldovian flag, sailed from Batumi, Georgia heading towards Mozambique. She was carrying 2750 tons of Ammonium Nitrate in bulk. Due to technical issues, the ship entered the Beirut port where it stayed docked for another seven years. The vessel carried around the volatile cargo of Ammonium Nitrate used in making fertilizers but also bombs.

The failure to reach the owner who is said to be a Russian businessman caused obstacles in dealing with this dangerous cargo. The legal disputes barred the Ammonium Nitrate from being auctioned. The Ammonium Nitrate was shifted to the warehouse of the port. The blast was so powerful that the tremors were felt across the eastern Mediterranean. A shockwave was felt which levelled the buildings and caused havoc among the people. The catastrophic blasts have left more than 200 people dead and thousands injured. The country’s healthcare took a hit as it was already struggling due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The Entanglement of the Port Authorities and the law

The domestic legislations do not regulate the arrest of the ships, but the port authorities decide regarding the capacity of the vessel to continue its journey. The petitions before the courts are determined based on prima facie merits. Lebanon is not a party to any International Convention on the arrest of the ships. But the seizure of the vessel or a freezing order is given under a law called the Saisie- conservatoire which is an enforcement clause for seizing the ship for, specific time.

In the present scenario, Rhosus was deemed to have been facing technical problems forcing the ship to enter the Beirut port. Various creditors came forward with claims, and there were three arrest orders against the vessel. But since the communication with her owners, cargo owners, and charterers could not be established, the ship was a ticking time bomb. These inadequate procedural practices and unclear rights and powers are the first reason for the Rhosus to have been docked for nearly seven years in the Beirut port.

The Humanitarian Crisis and the personal freedom of the crew

Once the ship was docked due to various reasons, the crew was stranded along with the ship. The immigration restrictions disallowed any of the crew members from setting foot on the land. The crew which remained on the ship was put in jeopardy by the cargo that she was carrying and also by the declining provisions for food. This soon escalated to a humanitarian crisis when all efforts for crew repudiation were a failure. The Lebanon constitution protects the rights of personal freedom for everyone.

The International Convention of Human Rights and Personal freedom provides for added importance of the same. The Court was approached based on ‘Urgent Matters’ where the Court decided the case based on the testimonies of the port officials and vessel agents. The primary consideration was the dangerous cargo that the ship carried. The Court then granted the permit for the crew to be taken to their home country. The Court’s decision was a landmark judgment as the Court considered the importance of personal freedom over the statutory and administrative considerations.

Ship Abandonment and Seafarers rights

Ship abandonment has been a widespread issue from time immemorial but rarely has it caused such devastating aftermath. The International Maritime Organisation maintains a database of all the abandoned ships and the vessels on various occasions. These illegal abandonments pose a threat to the ports where they have been docked and the environment as a whole in the event of destruction. The seafarers are subject to various laws of different countries and usually lack the support from their home countries. They are disproportionately subjected to the decisions of the shipping companies, the Port authorities, and immigration laws which vary from state to country.

The current pandemic acts as a catalyst to this ongoing issue. The countries all around the world have closed their borders and their ports. These ships in the sea are looked at as a hazard and carriers of the coronavirus. This has resulted in hundreds to ship being stranded in the sea with minimum means to survive. The economic crisis has deepened the problem of ship abandonment. The shipping industry is facing its biggest obstacle between a health crisis and the financial survivability of their companies.

The Economic crisis

Lebanon has been historically known for its standard of living and enjoyment of the finer things in life. But lately, Lebanon has been entangled in a series of bad policies and wrong economic decisions. The country’s financial stability has been crippling for the past year. The country has been providing shelter to a large number of Syrian and Palestinian refugees over the years.

She has also suffered from the ongoing conflict between the religious sects in the country, and even the war afflicted neighbouring countries. Lebanon has been haunted by the ghastly civil war in the ’90s, which resulted in the complex power-sharing structure to be established. The structure requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime minister, a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite Muslim. This involvement of religion in the political structure has caused the working of the systems to be ineffective, crippled with corruption, and vote bank politics. Due to this inefficiency, the country has been struggling with the management of the economy.

The government route to pay bills has been to borrow in debt and not innovative economic policies. This has led the country to become the third most indebted country in the world. This has resulted in the fall of currency value and an increase in the cost of essential commodities.

Political Ramifications

The country has been rocked by anti-government protests for a long time. These protests were ignited by the new taxation policy unveiled by the government in 2019. The budget aimed to tax every commodity that was consumed by the people, including social media platforms. The public anger escalated with the blast, which caused widespread catastrophic repercussions. The Lebanese parliament was pelted with stones following the blasts. Lebanon’s cabinet has resigned over these explosions.

The people are blaming the political agendas of the parties for the downturn of the economy. The ongoing currency crisis and the soaring prices of basic commodities have caused distrust in the government.

The Lebanon parliament has approved the declaration of State Emergency. This is to run for two weeks until August 21 but is subject to renewal. The state emergency which has been declared citing the exceptional circumstances allows the army to have sweeping powers. These sweeping powers will enable the military to curb the freedom of speech, assembly, and press along with unlimited arrest rights. This step by the Lebanese parliament has been questioned by various rights organizations to be a subjugation of individual rights. The human rights watch raised concerns regarding the standards of due process and the legality of such extreme steps.

International Reactions

Following the gruesome blasts, Lebanon has received support and help from throughout the world. The United Nations lost many of its staff members in the explosion, Maritime Task Force, Peacekeeping Force, and Naval Staff were injured. The United Nations urged the international community to lend a helping hand to Lebanon. Australia has pledged 2 million Australian dollars to the World Food Forum and Red Cross for the cause of the Lebanon Blast victims. Germany and Russia are supplying medical equipment and rescue professionals.


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