Dear panelists, organisers, and funding entities:
We, the undersigned researchers and human rights advocates, are writing to you today to protest the 2022 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) planned to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. We are dismayed that the IGF is not only having the forum in Addis Ababa but has also extended an invitation to an Ethiopian government official to be a panelist. This decision by the IGF completely neglects the ongoing state-imposed communication blackout and siege on the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
As has been evidenced in countless reports by international human rights organizations and investigative media, the Ethiopian government has been committing gross violations of human rights, international laws, humanitarian laws, and refugee laws in the past years including war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Most relevant with regard to the proposed forum is the communication blackout imposed by the Ethiopian government on Tigray for almost two years and its habitual denial of internet and telecommunication as a tool of political oppression. While this, on its own, is a clear violation of the rights of the region’s population, the communication blackout on Tigray severely impacts people’s everyday lives in many significant ways. All vital services, such as healthcare, education, economy, business, and administrative services, that rely on communication have been disrupted, leading to a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. At the same time, the absence of any means of communication, in addition to severe restrictions on access to humanitarian supplies due to the siege, means humanitarian work in the region has been incredibly difficult. Moreover,due to the blockade of communication services, investigations and reporting on the various human rights violations has been nearly impossible.
In addition to Tigrayans trapped in the region, the impact of the lack of communication services in Tigray has been heavy for the Tigrayan diaspora, who have not been able to contact their loved ones in Tigray for more than 22 months . Despite repeated pleas from the humanitarian community, the Ethiopian government has refused to restore communication services. These severe violations are breaches of the core of IGF’s themes, ‘Connecting All People and Safeguarding Human Rights’ and ‘Avoiding Internet Fragmentation.’
While we acknowledge that IGF serves to bring various stakeholder groups as equal to inform and inspire those with policy-making power, inviting an official who is part of the regime squashing internet opportunities and violating human rights, including access to the internet and communication, is a betrayal of the IGF’s purpose.
Moreover, the Ethiopian government has weaponized its monopoly of data, including ethnicity information that is included on citizens’ identification cards. This information has been utilised to target Tigrayans particularly. Tens of thousands of Tigrayans have been identified through this means, including the use of last names, their houses searched, properties confiscated and family members put into internment camps. The government also demands property owners register their tenants at administrative offices. Alarmingly, this utilisation of data to target selected (group of) people is currently being digitised.
Tigrayans continue to be rounded up from their homes, workplaces, and public spaces and sent to concentration camps, where they reportedly face inhumane treatments such as starvation, torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions. Investigative reports have documented tens of thousands of Tigrayans who are currently being held in concentration camps. The multifaceted persecution of Tigrayans has also included exclusions from economic and social systems through enforced closure of businesses, embargoed bank accounts, discrimination, and physical abuse.
As evidenced by a leaked audio, Ethiopian officials have also coordinated with UN bodies, including sharing of data, for the sole purpose of targeting vulnerable Tigrayans. Other minority populations, such as Qimant/Kimant and Benishangul, have also been victims of similar targeting by the government. These violations are within the scope of the themes for IGF, “Governing Data and Protecting Privacy” and “Enabling Safety, Security, and Accountability.”
Furthermore, journalists, media, and citizens who question the government and its narratives have become direct targets of intimidation, imprisonment, and expulsion. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented that at least 63 journalists and media personalities have been arrested in the past two years. Therefore, this forum, as planned right now, lacks critical voices.
In the light of this, we aver that in selecting Ethiopia as a host for the upcoming IGF meeting, organisers are showing indifference to the silencing of minority populations, journalists, and others in Ethiopia as well as validating the 22-month-long blackout imposed on 7million people. This is compounded by the decision to include Ethiopian government officials in the panel. We stress that holding the even in Ethiopia at this timebetrays the purpose of IGF while platforming the very entity at the core committing the violations planned to be discussed under the scope of the themes for IGF.
Therefore, we appeal to the IGF to reconsider its decision to holdi its conference in Addis Ababa. We recognize, however, that this can be a complicated process, and should it be impossible to reverse the choice of the host state, we believe there are action items the IGF organisers can take to minimise the negative implications of selecting Ethiopia as a host. We particularly ask organisers to:
- Publicly denounce the weaponization of information and communication by the Ethiopian government in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia;
- Disinvite Ethiopian government officials and panellists associated with the government;
- Consider creative ways in which to platform and amplify the voices of silenced minorities in Ethiopia by engaging with community groups and advocacy bodies. This can include facilitating secure digital participation by researchers, and human rights advocates representing minority and silenced groups who would otherwise not be represented or safe to take part in a meeting held under the auspices of the Ethiopian government.
- Ensure that output from the conference is not utilised for propaganda purposes to whitewash the Ethiopian government’s repression of freedom of speech, access to information, and state-sanctioned violence.
Finally, we would like to express our openness to further discussion and hope that this letter will serve to initiate a communication avenue.
Irob Anina Civil Society
Security & Justice for Tigrayans (SJT)
Stand With Tigray
Tigray Action Committee (TAC)
Tigray Centre for Information and Communication (TCIC)
Tigray Human Rights Forum
Women of Tigray
Dr. Teklehaymanot G. Weldemichel, Postdoctoral research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Saba Mah’derom, board member of Women of Tigray
Dr. Samson Yoseph Esayas, associate professor at Norwegian Business School
Mulu Beyene Kidanemariam, PhD candidate at University of Bergen, Norway
Gebrekirstos Gebreselassie, founder and chief editor of www.tghat.com
Teklai Gebremichael, PhD student at Mid Sweden University and associate editor at www.tghat.com
Dr. Meley Mekonen Rannestad, researcher at Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Meron Gebreananaye, PhD Student at University of Durham, associate editor at www.tghat.com