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Crisis of values

13 September 2013


IF IT was not known before, recent events in Syria have made it plain: the rules of warfare have changed, and the principles underlying the Geneva Convention can no longer provide shared values. To many combatants in the Middle East and elsewhere, the protocols of conflict adopted by the UN are merely Western European diktats, with no relevance to struggles pursued in the name of gods higher than those of secular liberalism.

I do not know what Michael Ignatieff did to get the above-the-title treatment afforded him in Michael Ignatieff and the Red Cross Crisis (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). I am not sure that the Harvard professor told us anything that a decent BBC correspondent could not have done. Nevertheless, the message he delivered was a sombre one: that the values and operational strategies of the Red Cross were not up to the chal-lenges of the 21st century.

One difficulty is that while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was designed to be an emergency resource, the organisation has become permanently embedded in some regions. Its policy of keeping its human-rights reports generally confidential has led to criticism that regimes will use a Red Cross presence as an alibi for continuing abuses.

This has led to some questions over the relationship between the ICRC and the United States, at a time when the US's own human-rights record was being compromised at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and there was anxiety over the development of drone and robot technology in warfare.

As Ignatieff discovered, the definition of what constitutes a war has to be renegotiated in a world where cyber-terrorism is as much a threat as the physical form. In that case, could a computer, located in a neutral state but unwittingly participating in cyber-subversion, be categorised as a belligerent?

It is a tough question, but negotiating in a domestic warzone peopled by wilful toddlers and exhausted parents may sometimes seem as difficult. In this situation, the Red Cross equivalent comes in the form of child psychologists. Healthcheck (BBC World Service, Wednesday of last week) celebrated the work of Anna Freud, the youngest daughter of the famous psychoanalyst, who pioneered the study of young children, and whose methods have become so mainstream as to seem almost intuitive.

Yet to hear of the earliest nurseries that she established is to enter a bohemian demi-monde of high-achieving parents and troubled kids. I particularly liked the sound of the Matchbox School, which looked after the children of artists such as the dancer Nijinsky. I imagine every neurosis conceivable to be on display.

Anna Freud seems to have been a remarkably sensible individual, despite being immersed in psychoanalysis from the age of 13, when she would sit in on her father's sessions, and even submitted herself to informal analysis by her father. She is not responsible for a grand theory, but rather for a methodology of observation which, if the witnesses interviewed here are anything to go by, was effective even with children traumatised by war.

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