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Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea to lose duty-free trade access to US over rights concerns

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The United States plans to remove Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea from the agreement that gives them duty-free access to the United States, President Joe Biden said in a letter to Congress, citing concerns over human rights and democracy in those countries.

The move, set to take effect on January 1, comes amid ongoing conflict and famine in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray, a military putsch in Guinea in September, and two coups in Mali since last year.

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Ethiopia declared a state of emergency on Tuesday after Tigrayan forces said they were gaining territory and considering marching on the capital Addis Ababa.

Biden said Ethiopia was not in compliance with the African Growth and Opportunity Act’s (AGOA) eligibility requirements “for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Guinea and Mali had not made progress toward establishing rule of law and political pluralism, and Mali had failed to establish workers’ rights and human rights, Biden’s letter said.

“Despite intensive engagement between the United States and the Governments of Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mali, these governments have failed to address United States concerns about their non-compliance with the AGOA eligibility criteria,” it said.

AGOA provides sub-Saharan African nations with duty-free access to the United States if they meet certain eligibility requirements, such as eliminating barriers to US trade and investment and making progress toward political pluralism.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement that the three countries’ trade preferences would be terminated on Jan. 1 unless they take urgent action to return to compliance with AGOA’s requirements.

Tai said she would provide the countries with clear benchmarks and work with them to achieve that objective.

Washington had warned Ethiopia for months that it risked losing its trade access, US Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman said on Tuesday, adding that there was still “a bit of time” for Ethiopia to act to avert the move.

Government spokespeople in Mali and Guinea could not immediately be reached for comment. Both countries were suspended from the African Union after their militaries seized power and have been sanctioned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc.

‘1 million jobs’

War broke out in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 between federal troops and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the region’s ruling party. Since then, there has been increasing international criticism of rights abuses in Tigray, including widespread sexual violence and mass killings of civilians.

Ethiopian officials -- who have denied troops committed ethnic cleansing and said Ethiopia will hold those who have committed abuses in the war to account -- have in the past said Washington’s threat to end trade benefits was meant to intimidate and would hurt impoverished people.

Ethiopian government spokesperson Legesse Tulu told Reuters the government had already commented on the issue. Tulu wrote earlier this month on Twitter that the suspension would cost Ethiopia 1 million jobs.

Ethiopia exported about $237 million worth of goods duty-free to the United States under AGOA in 2020, according to US Commerce Department data.

US-based apparel company The Children’s Place Inc and Sweden’s H&M AB, which source clothing from Ethiopia, did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Read more: Ethiopia declares nationwide emergency as rebels advance: State media