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30 Nov 2020

Human Rights Watch

Opinion: Human Rights Watch on phone & internet shutdown in ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region

"Conflict in Ethiopia and International Law", 25 November 2020.

Following the outbreak of hostilities on November 4, phone and internet communications were swiftly cut in the Tigray region. Humanitarian agencies have highlighted that access and telecommunications limitations in most parts of Tigray have made it difficult to assess the full impact of ongoing hostilities on the civilian population and the overall security of humanitarian workers in the region.

Shutting down the internet during a conflict, including mobile data, which is regularly used for both civilian and military purposes, would need to take into account the basic principles of the laws of war, including of necessity and proportionality... A complete shutdown of internet and phone communications during an armed conflict to over five million people in Tigray would cause various degrees of harm to the population affected, especially if the conflict escalates. This could amount to a form of collective punishment by imposing penalties on people without a clear lawful basis.

Similarly, under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to ensure that internet-based restrictions are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. General shutdowns violate multiple rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and information, and hinder others, including the right to free assembly.