NGOs warn Elon Musk of ‘collective punishment’ if Starlink in Sudan is shut down

LONDON: Starlink’s chief Elon Musk has been urged not to shut down the satellite internet service in Sudan, as doing so could “collectively punish” millions of Sudanese.

In an appeal to the American billionaire, nearly 100 humanitarian, civil society, human rights organizations and members of the #KeepItOn coalition have highlighted the critical role Starlink plays as a lifeline for on-the-ground organizations operating in the war-torn African country. They warn that interrupting the service could have fatal consequences.

“Any shutdown of telecommunication services is a violation of human rights and may be considered to be a collective punishment that will not only isolate individuals from their support networks but also exacerbate the already dire economic situation facing millions,” said the coalition, which includes Save the Children, Islamic Relief Worldwide and Action Against Hunger, among others.

The statement added: “The potential shutdown of Starlink would have a disproportionate impact on civilians and the aid organisations who are trying to reach them.”

Sudan has been grappling with a widespread telecommunications blackout for several months, severely limiting emergency and humanitarian services and access to basic transactions such as cash transfers from abroad.

Starlink, which can operate across borders thanks to its satellite service, announced earlier this month that it would cease its services in Sudan by restricting roaming in jurisdictions where it is not licensed.

If confirmed, this decision risks provoking a permanent nationwide telecommunications shutdown, similar to the one in February 2024 that left almost 30 million Sudanese without access to the internet or telephone calls for more than a month.

The situation is further exacerbated by the damage and destruction of communication infrastructure, targeted by both the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudanese military.

The coalition, which relies on expensive and scarce satellite internet in areas where formal telecommunications are not functioning, has also urged the warring factions to repair the infrastructure.

SpaceX’s Starlink has been under pressure to maintain its connection since conflict broke out in Sudan in April 2023.

In August, a hacking group called Anonymous Sudan took X offline in more than a dozen countries to pressure Elon Musk into formally opening Starlink in Sudan.

In recent months, the company has been at the center of a public debate over its role in connecting war-torn areas worldwide.

Earlier in May, Bloomberg reported that SpaceX was close to finalizing a deal with the Yemeni government to provide satellite internet to the country in what experts described as a “victory” over the Houthi rebels.

In September 2023, several media outlets reported that Elon Musk denied a Ukrainian request to extend Starlink’s coverage to Crimea during a surprise attack.

Although this was later clarified as an erroneous claim that Musk “turned off” Starlink coverage in Crimea, it raised concerns about the service’s role during conflicts.

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