Conflict and shutdowns in Tigray
Since the conflict began in Tigray in November 2020, authorities have used deliberate and sustained internet and telecommunication shutdowns as a weapon of information control and censorship, directly impacting the lives of approximately six million people
in the region, as well as their networks and communities abroad. Authorities and warring parties also targeted infrastructure and confiscated individuals’ SIM cards
, and, as the conflict spread to other parts of Ethiopia, including the Amhara and Afar regions, they shut down internet and telecommunication services and infrastructure in those areas — affecting up to 10 million people total. The deliberate shutdowns interfere with people’s ability to access education, healthcare, businesses, and other services, the long-term effects of which could resonate for years to come. These disruptions deprive people in Tigray and other areas from accessing vital and life-saving information about this conflict and connections
to their loved ones, leaving people outside the region without information on the safety of their families and communities back home, while making it extremely hard for journalists
and human rights defenders to document and report on the impacts in real time.
Ethiopia’s history of internet shutdowns
Authorities’ proliferation of internet shutdowns to crack down on dissent, control narratives, and restrict the flow of information in Ethiopia and across the continent is alarming, and the ongoing interruption in Tigray follows a pattern of hitting the kill switch in times of crisis. According to Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project
(STOP), since 2016, Ethiopian authorities have imposed at least 22 internet shutdowns at local and national levels.
Across the country, from the Amhara and Afar regions in the north, to western Oromia (under the control of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) since 2018), internet shutdowns have been used repeatedly
during violent conflicts — but never once did they prove to “restore order.”
Internet shutdowns cover up human rights violations
The internet, social media platforms, and other telecommunications play a critical role in times of social and political unrest, crises, and conflict. These tools enable communication, public debate, access to information, and documentation of events. They also help identify safe havens during conflict and crises. The ongoing internet shutdowns in Tigray are making it challenging for humanitarian aid and medical services to reach conflict zones and affected populations
Internet shutdowns violate national and international human rights laws
Experts, international institutions, and high-level officials — including the UN Secretary-General — have repeatedly affirmed
that shutdowns and blockings violate international human rights law. A recent report
by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted the impact of internet shutdowns on freedom of expression and access to information, and the negative effects they have on economic activities, social welfare, and humanitarian aid delivery. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, through the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, has also expressed concern
at the increasing weaponization of internet shutdowns in the region.
It’s time for immediate intervention
To date, the government and other parties involved in the blackouts in Tigray have ignored all calls from local and international organizations
urging them to reconnect people. It’s time for the African Union and its individual member states to speak out and condemn the Ethiopian government’s prolonged shutdown.
Cognizant of Article 3(H) of The Constitutive Act of the African Union which provides a clear mandate to AU Organs and institutions to promote and protect human rights in Africa, we call for a firmer approach to the situation in Tigray. We commend the African Union for initiating mediation in an effort to de-escalate the conflict, and further implore you to:
- Join the regional and international community in denouncing the two-year-long internet shutdown ravaging lives in and around the Tigray region and the practice of internet shutdowns in Ethiopia;
- Hold the Ethiopian government and all parties responsible for the shutdown accountable for immediately restoring full access to the internet and telecommunications platforms, in keeping with their commitments in the AU-mediated truce;
- Engage with the Ethiopian government and the Tigray regional authorities to ensure they uphold and protect people’s fundamental rights at all times, especially during crises; and
- Engage with authorities in Ethiopia to put an end to the cycle of internet shutdowns in conflict-affected areas and during critical national events in future.
We further urge African Union member states to unilaterally speak out and condemn the government’s restrictions of internet and telecommunication services. We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, are confident that your office will take note of the infractions enumerated above and implement our recommendations. You have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to improve and uphold freedom of expression and all human rights in Ethiopia — both online and off.