The recent CIJA sting on Paul McKeigue revealed a serious lapse of judgement on his part. But what it reveals from the perspective of international justice is immeasurably more significant: a rift between CIJA and the international legal community it aims to provide prosecution briefs for; affinities between CIJA and the White Helmets which raise wider concerns about Western-backed operations in Syria; and our neglect of the most egregious war crime in Syria.
CIJA (the Commission for International Justice and Accountability) is a private initiative that gathers documentary evidence and testimony relating to war crimes in Syria. Readers may have seen articles and documentaries celebrating the organisation’s activities.
Gathering robust evidence of war crimes is vital if their perpetrators are to be brought to trial. Holding perpetrators to account is part of a process of ensuring justice is seen to be done for the victims and survivors of those crimes, and it is also intended to alert prospective war criminals that they will have no impunity. Indeed, a core point of war crimes prosecutions is to signal, and seek to ensure, that what has happened will never happen again.
That strong intended prohibition is embodied in the Nuremberg Principles as the most fundamental crime punishable under international law. This, the Crime Against Peace, is committed in the ‘planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression’ or ‘participation in a common plan or conspiracy for other accomplishment’ of any such acts. For without the occasion for them provided by a war, there would be no war crimes.
These thoughts frame the bigger picture that is to be drawn out in the following reflections on the strange story alluded to in this article’s title.
The CIJA sting was initiated after Paul McKeigue had sent some questions to CIJA’s director about his financial and business dealings. (These are appended to his statement on the sting.) They formed part of wider ongoing investigations into the destination and use of UK FCO funds disbursed for UK operations in Syria, also including Mayday. Someone from CIJA, adopting a fake identity, engaged McKeigue in a lengthy email exchange designed to find out, they have said, what else he knew about the highly secretive organisation. (The results of his inquiry have since been published on the website of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media.)
Readers interested in CIJA’s perspective on the story can find it covered by BBC, Guardian, Daily Mail and Times (paywalled); while more critical reflections are offered by Grayzone. My own view, as a fellow member of the Working Group, is that McKeigue’s admitted misjudgements illustrate the need for a collaborative approach to doing epistemic diligence on communications about controversial matters. But the concerns to which CIJA’s activities give rise are immeasurably more significant.
A rift between CIJA and international lawyers
In a previous article on the importance of assuring the integrity and probity of those involved in gathering evidence for prosecutions of war crimes, it seems I underestimated the extent to which lawyers involved in international criminal law and international humanitarian law already share the concerns alluded to there.
Certainly, misgivings about the CIJA model of ‘entrepreneurial justice’ amongst international lawyers – including some who are directly involved in seeking justice for the people of Syria – came to public attention in discussions of the CIJA sting on Twitter. One initial comment came from Danya Chaikel, an international lawyer who has worked for 15 years across several international criminal courts, tribunals, NGOs, professional bodies and the UN.
Chaikel pointed up a concern with the very concept of ‘entrepreneurial justice’ that was emphasised in my previous article:
“Insofar as justice is a public matter, the project of treating it as a business opportunity would seem to involve a conflict of basic principles.”’
This prompted a reaction from CIJA’s Director of External Relations, Nerma Jelacic:
Jelacic rebuked the respected lawyer for sharing ‘drivel’ from an ‘Assad apologist’ (to repeat only the most salient of her defamatory descriptions of myself) who belongs to the same Working Group as McKeigue. She concluded a thread on her theme by saying to Danya Chaikel:
‘Welcome to the category of a useful idiot in the Syria disinformation campaign.’
Chaikel, who said she had not even heard of the Working Group, was understandably disconcerted. (She is also unlikely, I imagine, to have personally encountered the kind of defamatory language that has routinely been used in smearing its members over these three years since the alleged chemical attack in Douma.) She responded that she herself had concerns ‘based on personal experiences & the questions I have about CIJA’s model & working methods.’
She added: ‘I receive a lot of pushback if I even ask questions, which is worrying.’
This point was echoed by Sareta Ashraph, another respected international lawyer whose impressive career to date includes serving on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria and on the start-up team of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). Ashraph confirmed that Chaikel ‘is expressing pretty common concerns about CIJA’s model. The “either you’re with us or against us” defensiveness continues to be a disturbing facet of CIJA’s response to concerns.’
This was too much for Jelacic: ‘I am shocked that a lawyer of Danya’s standing would promote Grayzone and Working Group and disgusted that you try to spin it’.
Initially Ashraph tries to urge Jelacic to step back a little so they might find a more conciliatory mode of engagement. She merely wants ‘to emphasise that no one should feel intimidated to raise concerns in the public sphere or be pushed into silence due to personal attacks.’ But the CIJA Director of External Relations appears implacable, even accusing the lawyer of being involved in a disinformation campaign. When Ashraph points out this is defamatory, Jelacic retorts:
‘No no no @SaretaAshraph it is you and Danya that got the likes from Hayward, Robinson, Miller, Blumenthal, Maté et al. I had nothing to do with that. You defamed yourself.’
Thus the spokesperson for an organisation responsible for gathering evidence for the most serious of crimes accuses an international lawyer of contributing to a disinformation campaign on the grounds that certain people have pressed the “like” button on Twitter. The bizarreness of this aside, such a serious accusation is ‘truly horrifying’, says Ashraph. Yet Jelacic persists, tweeting “we have the proof” and “let’s leave it at that until further details of your contribution to the Syria disinformation campaign are made public”. This protracted exchange ends with a final warning of legal action.
This was due to our scepticism about the truth of chemical weapons allegations – scepticism shared even at the time by some of Britain’s most senior military figures who used the freedom of speech afforded by retirement from active service to voice it.
Now, three years later, the Working Group’s analysis of the Douma event stands unrebutted. The concern we voiced then is now being articulated by an increasing number of eminent figures around the world. A recent Statement of Concern has been signed by people who have dedicated their lives to serving and building institutions that uphold international justice. The specific concern of that Statement – which many fear could be emblematic of a much wider comparable cause for concern – is that a false report of events has been published by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) under political pressure from the states that themselves stand accused of committing the war crime of unlawfully bombing Syria.
This is what CIJA’s Nerma Jelacic was referring to when she spoke of the Working Group’s revelations of the OPCW’s ‘tainted evidence’. Chloe Hadjimatheou’s Mayday podcasts have purported to address the concerns about the Working Group’s analysis, but they have simply generated further questions that she, and all her colleagues who attempt to shore up a discredited narrative on Syria, have been unwilling – because unable – to answer.
What the lurid story of the sting that occasioned Paul McKeigue’s lapse of judgement opens us out onto is a much more serious reason why so many people have gone to so much trouble to denigrate members of the Working Group.
They cannot combat the truth. They can only try and exploit the human weaknesses of seekers after it. But that is not a sustainable strategy, because truth is available for all to see and doesn’t depend on any particular individuals or groups.
Viewed in this light, CIJA’s self-defeating sting operation merely exhibits how the remnants of a failed and morally bankrupt foreign policy venture are disintegrating. The policy has left in its wake such devastation and suffering caused to the Syrian people that all complicit in it share moral responsibility for a terrible crime against humanity.
 Examples include:
Al Jazeera documentary Syria Witnesses for the Prosecution
Channel 4 documentary Syria’s Disappeared: The Case against Assad
Julian Borger, ‘Syria’s Truth Smugglers’, The Guardian, 12 May 2015
Ben Taub, ‘The Assad Files’, The New Yorker, 18 April 2016
 ‘The UK’s propaganda effort for the Syrian armed opposition began after the government failed to persuade parliament to support military action against the Assad regime. In autumn 2013, the UK embarked on behind-the-scenes work to influence the course of the war by shaping perceptions of opposition fighters.’ (Cobain et al 2016) The UK hubristically imagined it could ‘help mould a Syrian sense of national identity that will reject both the Assad regime and Isis.’
‘Contractors hired by the Foreign Office but overseen by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) produce videos, photos, military reports, radio broadcasts, print products and social media posts branded with the logos of fighting groups, and effectively run a press office for opposition fighters.’
From Mark Curtis (2020):
‘The projects were run by Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) and military intelligence officers and given the codename Operation Volute, although those involved in the work refer not to propaganda but to “strategic communications”.
They were guided by the government’s National Security Council, Britain’s highest policy-making body, with a budget worth £9.6-million during 2015-16 alone, with more money earmarked for later years.
The documents show that the UK was covertly running parts of the Syrian opposition. It awarded contracts to communications companies that selected and trained opposition spokespeople, managed their press offices and developed their social media accounts.
Although the propaganda initiative was primarily aimed at Syrians both inside and outside the country, the documents make clear that UK audiences could sometimes be “a specified target” of media material and that some “may reach the UK information space”.’
‘Documents on the UK’s propaganda campaign examined by the Guardian in 2016 list several groups considered to be part of the “moderate armed opposition”. One was Jaysh al-Islam, a coalition of some 50 Islamist factions operating in and around Damascus and funded largely by Saudi Arabia.’
‘The new revelations are remarkable in that they confirm the extent to which the publicity work of opposition groups that the UK government has consistently invoked as legitimate opponents of the Assad regime can be traced back to London itself.’
‘The level of media management is noteworthy. Some prominent British journalists visiting Istanbul would be introduced to Syrians acting as opposition spokespeople, who had been prepared for the encounter by British handlers.’
‘Britain’s role in the war in Syria has been distinctly under-reported and mis-reported in the UK mainstream media. While the media has widely reported on UK military operations against Islamic State, its covert operations against the Assad regime have received much less attention.
The media has been keen to repeat government lines about the atrocities committed by the Assad regime. By contrast, opposition forces have been largely given a free pass, with many reports failing to even note that in many parts of Syria, those groups have been controlled or dominated by jihadists.
‘Noteworthy also is that the propaganda element of these programmes was accompanied by an intelligence-gathering role, to acquire further information on the alliances and activities of opposition forces. A key benefit was assessed to be the British government’s “connectivity to different (armed or non-armed) networks”.’
From Mark Curtis (2018):
‘Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), a newly formed coalition of around 50 Islamist factions funded by Saudi Arabia, was one of the groups considered by Britain to be part of the “moderate armed opposition”.’
‘Peter Ford, the former British ambassador to Syria, told a parliamentary enquiry in 2016 that the existence of “moderate” groups among the armed opposition was “largely a figment of the imagination”.
Although the FSA contained some secular units, it was in effect allied to IS until the end of 2013 and was collaborating with it on the battlefield until 2014, despite tensions between the groups. “We have good relations with our brothers in the FSA,” IS leader Abu Atheer said in 2013, having bought arms from the FSA.
The UK-supported rebels had an even closer relationship with Nusra. The BBC’s Paul Wood reported in 2013 that “the FSA is so close to Nusra it has almost fused with it”. The FSA has collaborated regularly with Nusra throughout the conflict.’
‘In 2017, the British government revealed that it spent £199m ($277m) since 2015 supporting the “moderate opposition” opposed to Assad and IS.
This support included “communications, medical and logistics equipment” and training journalists to develop “an independent Syrian media”. But details of more recent UK covert operations remain murky, and few recent media reports have uncovered the UK role.’
 Even focusing on accountability only, “You can’t set the basis for a state based on rule of law when you basically absolve one side,” said Claudio Cordone, head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at ICTJ.’ https://reliefweb.int/report/syrian-arab-republic/analysis-beginnings-transitional-justice-syria
 Perhaps it is this the authors have in mind with their rather elusive mention of having ‘inadvertently stumbled upon a golden opportunity to address issues of justice, accountability, transition and reconciliation simultaneously.’
 I went to Wikipedia to check his affiliations, only to find that Toby Cadman does not have a Wikipedia entry. I reflected wistfully that this affords his reputation a protection – e.g. from references like this – that is unavailable to others of us! He should be in Wikipedia, given that he is involved in significant activities, including seeking to bring prosecution cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction in European courts. Apparently, in 2012 he had been engaged by UK FCO ‘to head a team to investigate crimes committed in the Syrian Arab Republic.’
As regards the CIJA sting, I note that he tweeted: ‘The authorities will need to look into this carefully and scrutinise the role of the working group members’ and he referred to a ‘disinformation campaign’. Everyone should be aware that there was no plurality of members involved in the sting and that accusations of disinformation require to be proved.
 As I noted in an earlier article, the Caesar photos have been more actively promoted on the American side than the British. So Mohammad Al Abdallah, Executive Director at the US-funded Syria Justice and Accountability Centre – which Harris had had a hand in setting up – and is a conduit of US funding to CIJA, claims that it was Caesar photos that at that time had influenced cases in Germany and Spain, rather than the documents. But Wiley qualifies that claim: ‘‘In and of itself, would it make a case against Assad? No, not at all, not at all.’ Harris explains, ‘The Caesar photos are valuable as they show the scale of the atrocities, but … not the chain of command through which this was orchestrated.’ Nor, I have elsewhere suggested, do they even sufficiently establish which side was responsible for those atrocities. Wiley sees the value of the Caesar evidence as emotive: ‘It puts a human face on the documentation, on the charges. It’s a dead human face but it’s a human face.’ (There are in fact significant uncertainties about the photos’ evidentiary value, as I discuss elsewhere.)
‘UK covert operations appear to have begun in late 2011, a few months after popular demonstrations started challenging the Syrian regime in March of that year. … The UK and its allies spotted an opportunity, which they had long been looking for, to remove an independent, nationalist regime in the region and deepen their overall control of the Middle East.’
‘Qatar began shipping arms to opposition groups in Syria with US approval in spring 2011, and within weeks, the Obama administration was receiving reports that they were going to militant groups. By November, former CIA officer Philip Giraldi wrote that “unmarked NATO warplanes” were arriving in Turkey, delivering weapons and 600 fighters from Libya in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of Syrian army deserters.’
‘Britain’s MI6 and French special forces were reportedly assisting the Syrian fighters and assessing their training, weapons and communications needs while the CIA provided communications equipment and intelligence.’
‘Britain became involved in the “rat line” of weapons delivered from Libya to Syria via southern Turkey, which was authorised in early 2012 following a secret agreement between the US and Turkey. Revealed by journalist Seymour Hersh, the project was funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar while “the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria”.
The operation was not disclosed to US congressional intelligence committees as required by US law, and “the involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation”.’
‘The Telegraph reported on a Middle Eastern diplomat saying that Qatar is responsible for Nusra “having money and weapons and everything they need”.’