GENEVA — A UN body devoted to promoting broader and better access to the internet is about to hold its annual meeting in Ethiopia, whose government has cut off internet access in its northern Tigray region during a two-year war there.
Critics say Ethiopia stands out as an egregious example of a government preventing citizens from getting online — jeopardizing family ties, human rights and information flows.
The Internet Governance Forum, whose annual gathering has drawn top leaders like former German Chancellor Angela Merke in the past, scheduled this year’s Nov. 28-Dec. 2 meeting in Ethiopia well before the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spearheaded a military campaign in Tigray against regional fighters in November 2020.
Since then, fighting has impeded humanitarian access into the region as Ethiopia’s federal authorities try to isolate Tigray’s rebellion leaders by impeding humanitarian aid deliveries, isolating its beleaguered residents and shutting down banking and telecommunications services — leaving them largely incommunicado from the rest of the world.
Ethiopian authorities, however, insist they haven’t deliberately targeted the Tigrayan people.
Under a widely praised cease-fire deal agreed on Nov. 2, Ethiopia’s government is to continue restoring basic communications, transport and banking services for Tigray’s more than 5 million people, and both sides promised to allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid.
Ethiopia’s government in the past has said it needed security guarantees for workers sent in to repair communications infrastructure.
The government of Ahmed, who won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has promoted the upcoming IGF gathering in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as it strives to promote Ethiopia’s status as a regional economic power and African diplomatic hub.
Organizers of the meeting seek concrete steps to achieve “universal and meaningful internet connectivity.”
The Geneva-based forum laments that 2.7 billion people worldwide remain unconnected. It will focus this year’s meeting on “connecting all people and safeguarding human rights,” and avoiding internet fragmentation. It decries government policy that “limits uses of the internet or affects the open and interoperable character of the internet.”
Chengetai Masango, the forum’s program and technology manager, said Addis Ababa was a “prime place” to hold the annual meeting as Ethiopia is fast-developing country, home to a “large youth base” and a diplomatic hub — with many embassies, international institutions and the headquarters of the African Union.
“Ethiopia is a UN member state and as such is entitled to host UN meetings,” Masango wrote, adding: “The IGF and UN’s position on shutdowns everywhere has been consistent; they are incompatible with human rights.”
Even before the Tigray conflict began, the UN human rights office expressed concern about internet access and communications in Ethiopia, citing a “communications blackout” that began in January 2020 in areas under federal military control — namely western Oromia — during military operations against an armed faction there.
Fighting in the Oromia region this week led to several dozen casualties, witnesses said.
The rights office noted that Ethiopia is far from the only country to impose restrictions on the internet.
A UN report published in June noted internet shutdowns or clampdowns on social media in places including Myanmar, Sudan and Russia. It said shutdowns often occurred in places where governments carry out armed operations — and some may have been aimed to cover up human rights violations.
“The UN as a whole has been outspoken about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, and also about the alleged violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law,” Masango saiad.
Many Tigrayans have told The Associated Press they have been unable to contact loved ones in the region since the conflict began, and don’t know whether they are still alive.
The #KeepItOn coalition — which brings together over 280 organizations from 105 countries to promote open internet access — says it’s petitioning the African Union “to condemn the Ethiopian government’s prolonged shutdown, which has had devastating impacts on people living through a conflict, and to help restore internet access in the region and across Ethiopia.”
Access Now, another advocacy group, has launched a campaign to highlight Tigray’s two years without internet. It says the meeting in Addis Ababa offers an opportunity to focus on internet shutdowns and “to urge governments, particularly in Africa, to put an end to the practice.”
“Authorities have weaponized internet shutdowns against people in and outside of Tigray — disconnecting families, destroying business, and impeding humanitarian aid delivery,” it said. “This compounds the humanitarian crisis and provides cover for the human rights abuses.”
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.