Geneva – A United Nations body dedicated to promoting wider and better internet access is about to hold its annual meeting in Ethiopia, whose government cut internet access in the northern region of Tigray during a two-year war there.
Critics say Ethiopia stands out as a stark example of the government’s blocking of citizens from connecting to the Internet – jeopardizing family ties, human rights and the flow of information.
The Internet Governance Forum, whose annual gathering brings together top leaders such as former German chancellor Angela Merck, is scheduled to take place this year from November 28 to December. The second meeting in Ethiopia long before the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed led a military campaign in Tigray against regional fighters in November 2020.
Since then, fighting has hampered humanitarian access to the region as Ethiopian federal authorities attempt to isolate the Tigrayan rebel leaders by impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid, isolating its beleaguered population and shutting down banking and telecommunications – leaving them largely cut off from the rest of the world.
However, the Ethiopian authorities insist that they did not deliberately target the Tigrayan people.
Under the widely lauded ceasefire agreed on November 2, the Ethiopian government will continue to restore essential communications, transportation and banking services to more than 5 million people in Tigray, and both sides promised to allow unrestricted access for humanitarian aid.
The Ethiopian government has said in the past that it needs security guarantees for dispatched workers to repair telecommunications infrastructure.
Ahmed’s government, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has promoted the upcoming IGF gathering in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as it strives to boost Ethiopia’s position as a regional economic power and an African diplomatic hub.
The meeting’s organizers are seeking to take concrete steps to achieve a “global and meaningful Internet connection”.
The Geneva-based forum laments that 2.7 billion people worldwide remain offline. This year’s meeting will focus on “connecting all people and protecting human rights” and avoiding Internet fragmentation. He criticizes government policy that “limits uses of the Internet or affects the open and interoperable character of the Internet”.
Chingheti Masango, Program and Technology Director of the Forum, said Addis Ababa was a “key venue” for the annual meeting because Ethiopia is a rapidly developing country, home to a “large youth base” and a diplomatic hub – with many embassies and international. The headquarters of the African Union.
“Ethiopia is a member state of the United Nations, and therefore has the right to host UN meetings,” Masango wrote, adding: “The position of the IGF and the United Nations on lockdowns everywhere has been consistent; it goes against human rights.”
Even before the start of the Tigray conflict, the UN Human Rights Office expressed concern about internet access and communications in Ethiopia, referring to the “communication blackout” that began in January 2020 in areas under federal military control – namely, western Oromia – during military operations against the Tigray army. armed. faction there.
Witnesses said that the fighting in the Oromia region this week led to dozens of casualties.
The Rights Office noted that Ethiopia is not the only country with internet restrictions.
A UN report published in June cited internet shutdowns or crackdowns on social media in places including Myanmar, Sudan and Russia. She said shutdowns often occur in places where governments carry out armed operations – some of which may have been intended to cover up human rights abuses.
“The United Nations as a whole has been vocal about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, as well as about alleged violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law,” Masango Said.
Several Tigrayans told the Associated Press that they have not been able to contact loved ones in the area since the conflict began, and do not know if they are still alive.
The #KeepItOn coalition – which includes more than 280 organizations from 105 countries to promote open access to the internet – says it is asking the African Union to “condemn the prolonged shutdown of the Ethiopian government, which has had devastating effects on people living in conflict, and to help re-establish internet access.” in the region and across Ethiopia.”
Access Now, another advocacy group, launched a campaign to highlight Tigray’s two years of offline existence. She says the meeting in Addis Ababa provides an opportunity to focus on cutting off the internet and “to urge governments, particularly in Africa, to put an end to this practice”.
“The authorities have used internet shutdowns as a weapon against people inside and outside Tigray – separating families, destroying businesses, and impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid. This compounds the humanitarian crisis and provides cover for human rights abuses,” she said.
Anna wrote from Nairobi, Kenya.