GENEVA (AP) – A UN body dedicated to promoting wider and better access to the internet is about to hold its annual meeting in Ethiopia, whose government has blocked internet access in the northern Tigray region during a two-year war .
Critics say Ethiopia is an egregious example of a government preventing citizens from going online – jeopardizing family ties, human rights and information flows.
The Internet Governance Forum, whose annual gathering has historically attracted top executives like former German Chancellor Angela Merke, is scheduled for November 28-December 12 this year. 2 meetings in Ethiopia, well before the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spearheaded a military campaign in Tigray against regional militants in November 2020.
Since then, fighting has hampered humanitarian access to the region as Ethiopian federal authorities seek to isolate Tigray’s rebel leaders by impeding humanitarian aid shipments, isolating beleaguered residents, and shutting down banking and telecommunications services – leaving them largely incommunicado.
However, Ethiopian authorities insist they did not intentionally target the Tigrayan people.
Under a widely lauded ceasefire deal agreed on Nov. 2, the Ethiopian government is to continue restoring basic communications, transportation and banking services to Tigray’s more than 5 million residents, and both sides pledged to allow unrestricted access for humanitarian aid grant.
The Ethiopian government has said in the past that it needs security guarantees for workers sent to repair communications infrastructure.
Ahmed’s government, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, has sponsored the upcoming IGF meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to promote Ethiopia’s status as a regional economic powerhouse and African diplomatic hub.
The organizers of the meeting are looking for concrete steps to achieve “universal and meaningful internet connectivity”.
The Geneva-based forum laments that 2.7 billion people worldwide are not connected. The focus of this year’s gathering is on “connecting all people and upholding human rights” and avoiding fragmentation of the Internet. She condemns government policies that “restrict the use of the internet or impair the open and interoperable nature of the internet”.
Chengetai Masango, program and technology manager for the forum, said Addis Ababa was a “prime location” to hold the annual gathering as Ethiopia is a rapidly developing country, home to a “large youth base” and a diplomatic center — with many international ones Embassies Institutions and Headquarters of the African Union.
“Ethiopia is a UN member state and as such is entitled to host UN meetings,” Masango wrote, adding: “The position of the IGF and the UN on shutdowns was consistent across the board; they are incompatible with human rights.”
Even before the start of the Tigray conflict, the UN Human Rights Office expressed its concerns about internet access and communications in Ethiopia, citing a “communications blackout” that occurred in January 2020 in areas under federal military control – namely western Oromia – during military operations against an armed person started faction there.
The rights office noted that Ethiopia is far from the only country imposing restrictions on the internet.
A UN report released in June found internet shutdowns or social media crackdowns in places like Myanmar, Sudan and Russia. It said there were frequent closures in places where governments are conducting armed operations – and some may have been aimed at covering up human rights abuses.
“The United Nations as a whole has spoken openly about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia and also about the alleged violations of human rights, international humanitarian law and refugee law,” Masango said.
Many Tigrayans have 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 brings together over 280 organizations from 105 countries to promote open internet access – is calling on the African Union to “condemn the ongoing Ethiopian government shutdown which has had a devastating impact on people living through conflict , and to help restore internet access in the region and throughout Ethiopia.”
Access Now, another advocacy group, has launched a campaign to mark Tigray’s two years without the internet. It said the Addis Ababa meeting provided an opportunity to focus on internet shutdowns and “urge governments, particularly in Africa, to end the practice.”
“Authorities have weaponized internet shutdowns against people inside and outside of Tigray – separating families, destroying businesses and hampering the delivery of humanitarian aid,” it said. “This exacerbates the humanitarian crisis and provides cover for human rights abuses.”
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.
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