Fifteen months on from one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, Australian mother Sarah Copland is still fighting for justice and answers.
Ms Copland’s son, Isaac Oehlers, was the youngest of at least 218 people killed in the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020. He was two-years-old.
Ten days after the explosion which tore through Lebanon’s capital, Ms Copland and her husband Craig Oehlers moved to Melbourne to be close to family.
But life remains tough back in Australia.
“My family is obviously devastated at the loss of Isaac but they don’t know what it was really like to be there on that day and to live through that explosion. You can’t understand unless you lived through it,” she said.
“That’s why it’s been really crucial for us to connect with other victims’ families in Beirut and why I keep in contact with a number of other people there, because they understand.”
The anniversary of the blast was particularly difficult for Ms Copland and her family in Melbourne. In Beirut thousands of people poured onto the streets calling for justice.
Ms Copland has been lobbying the Australian government for support in establishing a UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission. Australia can make the request, even if it’s not a sitting council member.
Ms Copland has spoken to a number of Australian politicians and met with officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs, and has not received a firm commitment of support for an international investigation led by the UN.
“It is one of many competing issues on the government’s agenda, particularly with COVID, just trying to get any airtime for other issues is a challenge at the moment,” Ms Copland said.
“That’s why I keep persisting, talking to people and keep trying to show that this issue is not going away.
“Australia and the broader international community can’t let the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history just go by the wayside like it doesn’t matter.”
While the international system of justice is not designed to be a first course of action, Ms Copland and other victims’ families believe the ongoing domestic investigation in Beirut has had its chance.
“It’s clear that the authorities are not going to let it happen,” Ms Copland said.
“They’re pulling out every trick to delay, to interfere and prevent the investigation from being completed.”
The first local judge tasked with investigating the port explosion, Fadi Sawan, was dismissed after he called Lebanese politicians — who knew of the storage of 2754 tonnes of potentially dangerous ammonium nitrate in the port — for questioning.
The investigation has again been suspended after the current judge, Tarek Bitar, was notified of a dismissal case against him by Lebanon’s former interior minister Nouhad Machnouk who had been summoned for interrogation.
Amnesty International representative Lynn Maalouf released a statement after the suspension labelling it another “callous disregard” for victims and their families.
“Every stage of this investigation has been hampered by the Lebanese authorities’ efforts to shield politicians and officials from scrutiny,” Ms Maalouf’s statement read.
Legal Action Worldwide Executive Director, Antonia Mulvey, is working for victims’ families to push for an international investigation and says it’s time for international law to intervene.
“The purpose of the UNHRC is to look at these contexts where we have these failings and where the violations are so serious such as here, where we’re talking about the right to life and the right to remedy,” Ms Mulvey said.
“While you might have individuals (in Lebanon) like Judge Bitar, which you can clearly see is trying his very best with minimal resources around him, it is the system itself which is working against him and will not allow accountability.”
Ms Mulvey, based in Jordan, said people would listen to Australia if it delivered a resolution at the Human Rights Council, considering an Australian citizen was killed.
“Australia could be very persuasive … we would like to see Australia taking a far stronger role on this,” Ms Mulvey said.
The results of an international investigation led by the UN could support the domestic investigation in Lebanon, and would give less space for any findings to be accused of bias.
The fact-finding mission, which would deploy technical experts and resources not available in Lebanon, can also be used in trials in third-party countries.
Considering Isaac was an American dual national, it technically means cases could be launched in Australia and America to seek justice for his death.
These lawsuits could lead to international arrest warrants for people found to be complicit in the explosion, as well as individual sanctions on those who are held responsible.
The UNHRC is in session until Friday, meaning Ms Copland and other victim’s families will need to wait until March for the matter to be added to the agenda.
“I know that the wheels turn very slowly but being the mother of a victim it is incredibly frustrating and disheartening at times to see that the system is not always designed with the interest of the victims at the core,” Ms Copland said.