Who's Responsible for the Beirut Port Fire?

When the M/V Rhosus sailed into Lebanese waters in 2013 to pick up new cargo, the owners already had exhausted their funds and had no money to pay for the vessel’s voyage to Mozambique. Their plan was that the already-laden vessel would pick up new cargo that would pay the tolls for the Suez Canal and bunkers for the journey down the African coast. When the explosive cargo was finally delivered to the purchasers in Mozambique, the owners of the vessel would finally be paid and there would be money for the vessel’s debts.

Unfortunately, the Lebanese authorities did not let the Rhosus leave, beginning a chain of events that led to the terrible explosion on August 4th in Beirut. Who was responsible for the explosion? In a very real sense, all the lawyers involved, the Lebanese judicial system and the Rule of Law™ itself.

During the seven years the cargo has been in Beirut, no less than six lawsuits were filed by various parties in an effort to secure the cargo, obtain control over the cargo or sell the cargo. Every single one of these efforts was unsuccessful. As a result, the cargo sat rotting in the port. All that was needed was a source of ignition and eventually, one was found when nearby-stored fireworks ignited. The conflicting lawsuits and bankruptcies made it impossible for the authorities to take any decisive action. The Lebanese legal system was simply not up to the task.

In 2001, a container of Chinese fireworks stored in the open at the port of Dammam in Saudi Arabia caught fire during the summer heat. Fireworks are explosives, but people treat them as if they were toys. The fire quickly spread, but no other explosives were nearby. The authorities in Beirut failed to learn this lesson. When the Beirut fireworks caught fire, the fuse for the greater explosive charge was lit.

Now there will be more lawsuits. The vessel owner will escape liability: he has already declared bankruptcy and storage of the explosives for the past seven years has been at the direction of the Lebanese port authorities. It was a bad idea to attempt to carry this cargo on this ship, but there was no international authority preventing him from doing so and the customary laws of the sea are silent.

Finally, there is one aspect of this tragedy that has escaped notice: given that the bomb was 1/10th the blast of a Hiroshima device and on the whole, Beirut was not utterly destroyed, this incident will be used as an argument in favor of small, tactical nuclear weapons. After Hiroshima, such an idea was unthinkable. Now it is unthinkable no longer.