Washington on Tuesday said it was ready to expel Ethiopia from a key trade pact over the humanitarian crisis in the Tigray region unless “urgent action” is taken to address US concerns.
In addition to Ethiopia, Guinea and Mali are also at risk of imminent expulsion from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants eligible participants in Sub-Saharan Africa duty-free access to the US market for thousands of products.
“Today, President Biden announced three countries will be terminated from the AGOA trade preference programme as of January 1, 2022, absent urgent action to meet statutory eligibility criteria,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement.
“Our administration is deeply concerned by the unconstitutional change in governments in both Guinea and Mali, and by the gross violations of internationally recognised human rights being perpetrated by the government of Ethiopia and other parties amid the widening conflict in northern Ethiopia.”
Ms Tai's announcement came the same day that Ethiopia declared a nationwide state of emergency following advances from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the Amhara region and subsequent threats to advance south on the capital Addis Ababa.
Ms Tai vowed to “provide each country with clear benchmarks” that they would have to meet to rejoin the AGOA and continue receiving duty-free access to the US market.
But Ethiopia still has time to avoid losing US duty-free access, US Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said on Tuesday. He added that Washington did not want to make the move, but had warned the government for months that it was a risk.
“Ethiopia does not have to lose the AGOA eligibility if it takes certain steps in the days ahead and that's what we hope will happen,” Mr Feltman said.
The AGOA stipulates that a country must “not engage in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights” to receive preferential trade status.
While most countries that benefit under the AGOA primarily export raw materials, Ethiopia is unique in that it relies on the trade pact for tariff-free exports of its light manufacturing industry, including garments.
The initial US threat to remove Ethiopia prompted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office to release a video last month highlighting a woman named Saron working in an Ethiopian garment factory using the Twitter hashtag #LetHerWork.
“With the potential for AGOA sanctions, losing this opportunity not only means loss of occupation, but also driving millions into poverty,” a voice-over states.
“And women like Saron would face forced marriage and illegal migration.”
But Mike McCaul and James Risch, the top Republicans on the House and Senate foreign affairs committees, released a statement last month endorsing the Biden administration’s removal of Ethiopia from the AGOA.
“If Ethiopia’s AGOA benefits are revoked, the responsibility will fall solely upon the government of Prime Minister Abiy,” the two Republicans wrote.
They called on Mr Abiy to “take immediate, concrete action to avoid further gross violations of human rights and to bring Ethiopia into compliance with its obligations to both the Ethiopian people and the eligibility requirements of this trade preference programme”.
Karl Von Batten, head of the consulting firm Von Batten-Montague-York, lobbied the Biden administration and Congress to expel Ethiopia from the AGOA in the hopes that the loss of billions of dollars in revenue would prompt Mr Abiy’s backers to compel him to enter peace talks over the Tigray war.
“We were mocked when we began advocating for the suspension of Ethiopia from AGOA early this year,” Mr Von Batten told The National.
“We were told it would never happen.
“Nevertheless, I had faith in the United States. I knew that we as a country would not sit back and allow the regime of Prime Minister Abiy and his powerful backers to benefit from US trade while his armed forces and allies commit gross human rights violations. We are a nation of laws.”
Under US law, the president must publish a determination as to whether AGOA beneficiaries such as Ethiopia continue to meet the eligibility requirements in the federal register every year.
The National first reported in September that the State Department was reviewing whether Ethiopia’s actions in Tigray constituted a genocide. A genocide designation could make it hard to justify keeping Ethiopia in the AGOA under the law’s eligibility requirements.
Mr Biden also signed a broad executive order last month paving the way for sanctions on all actors responsible for human rights abuses in the Tigray civil war, including the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments as well as the Amhara Regional Government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The AGOA expulsions also reflect a strong US condemnation of the recent coups in Guinea and Mali.
And the Malian military in May staged its third takeover in 10 years — the second under Assimi Goita, who also staged a coup last year.
Agencies contributed to this report