As many voices are urging Sudan's military council to stop, not only with the despicable killing and raping of protesting civilians, but also with the shutdown of the Internet, the United Nations Human Rights Council has also added its voice urging the military to switch the Internet back on. Internet connectivity disruptions escalated over the past week with Sudan now almost entirely cut off from the Internet.
This is after pro-democracy protests organizers were using social media and instant messaging apps to communicate with other protestors and report on how the military was attacking them.
“A general network shutdown is in clear violation of international law and cannot be justified by any means… Access to information is crucial for the credibility of the ongoing electoral process. Shutdowns are damaging not only for people’s access to information, but also for their access to basic services,” said David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Internet access is a human right
During December 2003, the United Nations, along with governments, civil society organizations and some businesses held a summit which, in summary, resolved that access to the Internet is a basic human right. The UN at the time reaffirmed that, "as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Communication is a fundamental social process, a basic human need and the foundation of all social organization. It is central to the Information Society. Everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to participate and no one should be excluded from the benefits the Information Society offers."
As such, Sudan’s ongoing Internet shutdown is seen as a gross violation of human rights. This sentiment is also echoed by Human Rights Watch who have also urged the military to lift the Internet shutdown and allow people in Sudan to communicate over the Internet.
Not only is the Internet a human right, but in emergency situations like what is now happening in Sudan, it is vital for emergency communications, including information from health care providers, and to access other basic information in times of crisis.
“If the Transitional Military Council genuinely intends to restore peace and maintain good will with civilian opposition leaders, it should reverse this dangerous shutdown, which puts even more lives at risk. These shutdowns blatantly repress the rights of the people the military council claims it wants to have a dialogue with,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, acting emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Activists in Sudan began reporting mobile Internet disruptions on 3 June 2019 when government forces carried out a bloody, large-scale attack on the sit-in in Khartoum, killing more than 100 people and injuring hundreds more. The attack followed weeks of growing tensions as negotiations stalled between the military council and opposition groups over the formation of a civilian-led transitional government, following the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir on April 11.
The Sudanese Professionals’ Association, an activist group opposing military rule, called for a campaign of civil disobedience starting June 9, asking supporters to remain at home until the country’s governance was transferred to civilian authorities.
The military council, so far, has offered no compelling justification for cutting off Internet access in Sudan.
“We stopped Internet services for a limited period, at our discretion,” said Shamseddin Kabashy, spokesperson for the military council, confirmed on Al-Jazeera that the council had ordered the shutdown.
Mohammed, a 29-year-old demonstrator in Khartoum, told Human Rights Watch: “We…struggle with verifying information. This whole situation now is creating isolated locations where we don’t really know what is happening and what kind of abuses are taking place there.”
The block on internet access has also caused serious safety concerns by denying access to information that could help people safely navigate roads during the current unrest. “It is dangerous now with all the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in the streets and checkpoints to walk or drive around,” a 27-year-old man living in Khartoum said. “Without internet access, we can't be warned, as used to be the case, on what streets to avoid and what are the safest routes.”
Violation of human rights
It is worth emphasizing that such an Internet shutdown violates multiple human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and information, and hinder others, including the right to free assembly.
Furthermore, in their 2015 Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Responses to Conflict Situations, UN experts and rapporteurs declared that, even in times of conflict, “using communications ‘kill switches’ (i.e. shutting down entire parts of communications systems) can never be justified under human rights law.”
Under international law, Sudan has an obligation to ensure that Internet-based restrictions are provided by law and a necessary and proportionate response to a specific security concern. Officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the flow of information, or to harm civilians’ ability to freely assemble and express political views, Human Rights Watch said.
“No one is going to believe that a government that has repeatedly blocked this crucial avenue of communication is otherwise dealing with protesters in a proportionate, rights-respecting manner. There is simply no legitimate justification for this overbroad measure that is designed to repress the exercise of fundamental rights,” concluded Motaparthy said.