The post-cold war paradigm has shifted from a bipolar structure of the international political order to a multipolar order. The fall of the Berlin wall was followed by the collapse of nation-states such as Yugoslavia, greater Ethiopia and Somalia which were under the very strict policy based control of their Godfather State: the USSR.


The early 1990s match with the special period of time when Eritrea was created from the ashes of greater Ethiopia. The 1990s also correspond to the US intervention in Somalia to impose a ceasefire among warlords dividing the territory. The elimination of USSR, as an ideological power structuring it’s satellite friends, allowed room for a new nation to blossomand old states to break down. “Humanitarian action” was coming to the surface as an ideology for intervention in this crucial historical stage. The 1990s were thus the best occasion for US to influence the world market and impose their prices on energy. In consequence, humanitarian crises could be understood as a coalition of major capitalist’s powers to dominate the new order created by the absence of USSR. In this view, humanitarian action presents a few similarities with the “civilizing mission” during colonial times. The vacuum engendered by the collapse of USSR was filled by a “humanitarian” theory of intervention and US hegemony over the globe. The term “American Empire” is contested by many scholars arguing that the USA never had colonies. The notion of an Empire, contrary to what activists might demonstrate, is not historically pertinent. An Empire is an obsolete model that perhaps does not meet the uncontested North American hegemony after Bretton-Woods. American economic pre-eminence has progressively declined since 2000 and is challenged by China. The nineties, then, might appear like the apex of American global dominance over the world’s economy and the golden age. Since the early 2000s the War on Terror has tarnished the concept on humanitarian action with the Global War on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. 9 September 2011 is a turning point:  the US started, for the first time in history, to act as a “wounded bear” (the expression is from Ahmed Rashid, 2009)  manipulating humanitarian action into the war effort as a force-multiplier, showing the dark and nebulous side of humanitarian action. The essence of humanitarian action was based on human assistance and religious feelings and was originally politically neutral. The 2000s have have tarnishedthe image of the NGOs and the assistance programs in the field of war and that of of a free assistance of human solidarity. The connection of humanitarian staff and projects with the wars, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, have paved the way for a global suspicion against the notion of what is “humanitarian”. The South Asian bloc is suspicious about their action. That is partly the reason why a real boon was to be observed in the global South concerning local NGOs challenging the West with endogenous organizations. Muslim and Buddhist orgaizations gave a local answer to the different catastrophes the populations in their countries were facing.


Genocides, such as the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, are also wrongly termed as “humanitarian crises”. The conflicts putting at risk whole populations, on a given territory, are called “humanitarian crises” when they should be called by their names: Civil Wars. Civil and secession wars separating whole societies in different segmentswere identified as “conflicts” during the Cold war. The post-Cold war paradigm is a process of eupheminizing to avoid the notion of war. The term “war” is replaced by the word “crisis”. Western diplomacies chill at the thought of calling a cat a cat because the public opinion exhibit non-violent attitudes and peaceful state of minds.


Using the word “crisis” is a helpful tool to underestimate what is, in reality, a true war where people are being killed in tremendous proportion. In Tibet, 500,000 people were killed, in Ethiopia, the 1984-85 famine is the worst in living memory with an estimated death toll of over one million and millions of others left destitute and on the verge of starvation.  In Somalia, the British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died, most of them children in the civil war. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice International Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in the deaths of 140,000 people. 800,000 civilians were killed in Rwanda and 500,000 in Darfur. In Congo, more than 5 million people lost their lives. Is the word “crisis” proper to name these human apocalyptic catastrophes? It is also useful to justify an intervention on a humane base screening the economical or strategic motivations. The confusing concept of crisis gives a myriad of opportunities for action and is advantageous in term of non-violent communication. Our democracies in the West insist on a smooth way of expressions, sometimes disguising real aggression. Is aid the miraculous instrumental excuse for a State to interfere in other State affairs? Has Humanitarian action prolonged the wars they were supposed to solve?


 Exonerating an intrusion with a set of good pretexts is a recurrent strategy in the history of international relations. The structural motivation of Western diplomacy is to never forget “growth” and economical interests. Different scholars, in this view, have emphasized significance of the “oil corridor” – estimated to contain 70% of the total world oil reserves – where Iran and Iraq are geographically at the center of this production space.


The thirst for energy has been continuously investigated by scholars arguing that the US takes action where the capitalist system is threatened. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their groundbreaking publication encapsulated globalization as an “imperialism” with a realm combining different configurations of forces driven by the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and the multitude of NGOs – fully part of the game, arranging and establishingthe rules for a globalized world in which the USA maintains an evident hegemony.


During the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the US never moved a finger because the Cold-war order imposed the rule of respecting State Sovereignty. Military reaction against Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 would have led to terrible consequences for the West; Tibet was thus sacrificed on the altar of a bipolar order. In the mid-eighties, after a revolution, Ethiopia was ruled by a Marxist junta government supported by the USSR and Cuba. They faced a terrible drought killing millions of peasants in the mid-eighties in the north of the country. The Marxist Ethiopian regime was contested by two major rebellions which happened to be the provinces where the famine were most severe. The West sent a multitude of NGOs in Ethiopia during the hunger crisis to develop different aid programs. They never interfered in the country’s politics. The USSR had it’s experts everywhere to control the Ethiopian state. The western NGOs indirectly fueled the wars in Wollo, Tegray and Eritrea. The money given to the Ethiopian government was used to crush the insurgents. Ironically the Eritreans rebels won in 1991 after the collapse of the Berlin wall. The USSR absence from the international scene indirectly led to the creation of a new Nation, Eritrea, which was born as a independent country in 1994.


Dr. Fabienne Le Houerou,

Chercheur (IREMAM- UMR 7310-CNRS/Aix-Marseille-Université)


About the Author:

Dr. Fabienne Le Houerou is a social science researcher working in the French National Center For Research (CNRS), Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman (IREMAM) and the author of the e-book ‘Humanitarian Crises and International Relations 1959-2013‘ published by Bentham e-books, in March 2014. The book explores the sophisticated ways the International Community exploits the genuine ‘good feelings’ of the world’s Societies in order to impose an order. Fabienne Le Houérou stresses how the use of ‘honey language’ can hide a ‘vinegar reality’ in our multipolar international system.