Ethiopia hosts UN web meeting after cutting off Tigray

GENEVA – A UN body dedicated to promoting wider and better internet access is set to hold its annual meeting in Ethiopia, whose government has cut off internet access in the northern Tigray region during two years of war.

Critics say Ethiopia stands out as a clear example of a government blocking citizens’ access to the internet – putting family ties, human rights and the flow of information at risk.

The Internet Governance Forum, whose annual meeting has in the past attracted top leaders such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is scheduled for November 28 to December 28 this year. The 2nd meeting in Ethiopia, long before the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed led a military campaign in Tigray against regional militants in November 2020.

Since then, fighting has hampered humanitarian access to the region as Ethiopia’s federal authorities seek to isolate Tigray’s rebel leaders by blocking humanitarian aid, isolating their besieged residents and shutting down banking and telecommunications services, cutting them off from the rest of the world.

However, Ethiopian authorities insist that they did not deliberately target the Tigrayan people.

Under a ceasefire agreement agreed on November 2, the Ethiopian government will continue to restore basic communications, transport and banking services to Tigray’s more than 5 million people, and both sides have pledged to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid.

In the past, the Ethiopian government has said it needs safety guarantees for workers sent to repair communications infrastructure.

Ahmed’s government, which won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, promoted the IGF meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, as it seeks 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 remain unconnected. At this year’s meeting, he will “unite all people and protect human rights” and prevent the fragmentation of the Internet. It criticizes government policies that “restrict the use of the Internet or affect the openness and interoperability of the Internet.”

Chengetai Masango, the forum’s program and technology manager, said Addis Ababa was a “prime location” to host the annual gathering because Ethiopia is home to a fast-growing, “huge youth base” and a diplomatic hub – with many embassies, international institutions and the headquarters of the African Union.

“Ethiopia is a member state of the UN and therefore has the right to host UN meetings,” Masango said, adding: “The position of the IGF and the UN on shutdowns everywhere has been consistent; they are incompatible with human rights.”

Prior to the start of the Tigray conflict, the UN human rights office expressed concern about internet access and communications in Ethiopia, citing a “communication blackout” that began in January 2020 during military operations against militants in areas under federal military control, i.e. western Oromia. fraction there.

According to witnesses, this week’s fighting in the Oromia region has resulted in several dozen casualties.

The rights office noted that Ethiopia is far from the only country to impose restrictions on the Internet.

A report published by the UN in June noted the shutdown or suppression of the internet on social media, including in Myanmar, Sudan and Russia. He said shutdowns often occur where governments are conducting armed operations, and some are intended to cover up human rights abuses.

“Overall, the UN has been outspoken about the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia, as well as the alleged violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law,” Masango said.

Many Tigrayans told The Associated Press that they have been unable to contact loved ones in the region since the conflict began and do not know if they are still alive.

The #KeepItOn coalition, which brings together more than 280 organizations from 105 countries to promote open internet access, said it appealed to the African Union to “condemn and help the Ethiopian government’s long-term shutdown, which has had a devastating effect on people living with the conflict. restore internet access in the region and Ethiopia.

Access Now, another advocacy group, launched a campaign to highlight Tigray’s two years without internet. He said the meeting in Addis Ababa offered an opportunity to focus on internet shutdowns and “call on governments, especially in Africa, to end the practice”.

“Authorities have weaponized internet shutdowns against people in Tigray and beyond – disconnecting families, destroying businesses and hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid,” “It’s exacerbating the humanitarian crisis and covering up human rights abuses.”


Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya.

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