/ 4 November 2023

United States won’t lower its Agoa human rights standards

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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Photo: Leon Sadiki/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The US is not willing to lower its democratic and human rights standards for countries seeking preferential access to American markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of this week’s Agoa forum, deputy assistant secretary at the US bureau of African affairs Joy Basu was categorical: “This is a programme that is trying to uplift the people of this continent and be a partner in that. And lowering our standards for human rights, lowering our expectations for democratic rights, that is not the way to do that. I don’t think that is what the people of this continent want.”

Days before this week’s Agoa forum got underway, US president Joe Biden made known his intention to remove the Central African Republic, Gabon, Niger and Uganda as beneficiaries of the programme, noting that the four countries do not meet the eligibility requirements of section 104 of the legislation.  

Sub-Saharan African countries are only eligible to benefit from Agoa if they have established, or are making continual progress towards establishing, “the rule of law, political pluralism and the right to due process, a fair trial, and equal protection under the law”. 

They also cannot “engage in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights or provide support for acts of international terrorism”.

Last December, Biden removed Burkina Faso as a beneficiary following two military coups in 2022.

Beneficiary countries have no recourse to dispute their removal from Agoa, which is a non-reciprocal trade arrangement. 

In a letter to the US congress this week, Biden noted that the government of the Central African Republic “has engaged in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights and has not established, or is not making continual progress toward establishing, the protection of internationally recognised worker rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism”.  

Niger and Gabon have not established, or are not making continual progress toward establishing, the protection of political pluralism and the rule of law, while Uganda has engaged in gross human rights violations, Biden said.

“Despite intensive engagement between the United States and the Central African Republic, Gabon, Niger, and Uganda, these countries have failed to address United States concerns about their non-compliance with the Agoa eligibility criteria.”

Agoa’s non-reciprocal nature adds a layer of unpredictability to the programme, a factor which may make trade deals with other economic heavyweights far more attractive. 

Earlier this week, Nhlanhla Cyril Mbatha, director of the Rhodes Institute of Social and Economic Research, remarked that doing business with China — which has made considerable inroads on the continent — comes with far less transformational costs.

He suggested that this predicament may require that Agoa’s economic aspirations have to be separated from its political demands. “The requirements for revision of political conditions may have to be reduced and a more stepwise approach taken that accounts for the costs of political transformation that are paid by African governments,” he said.

“Basically, the US strategy has to be more realistic of the current conditions at least for short-term gains, if they want to deal with competition from China. Whether such a strategy will work in the long term would be up in the air though.”

But Basu said that this lower transformational cost comes at the expense of African people. “I don’t think we should be lowering our standards. I don’t think that that is in our interests. It is not aligned with this programme and that would come at the expense of African people’s rights. That is not what we want to see.”

Agoa’s criteria have also been used to question South Africa’s eligibility.

Earlier this year, US lawmakers wrote to secretary of state Antony Blinken expressing “serious concern” over South Africa hosting the Agoa forum, citing the country’s stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the allegation that it provided arms to Moscow via Lady R. The US has condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine, placing significant sanctions on the country.

Section 104 of Agoa states that eligible countries must “not engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests”.

The matter was seemingly put to bed following concerted efforts by South African officials to clarify its neutral stance on Russia, culminating in the country hosting the Agoa forum this week.

But this has not stopped certain people within the US congress — which ultimately decides whether Agoa is extended and in what form — from pushing back against South Africa’s inclusion in the programme.

This week, Republican senator Jim Risch again questioned South Africa’s eligibility, this time also citing the country’s stance on Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Republicans hold the majority in the US House of Representatives, which this week — in a show of its support to Israel — passed a plan to provide $14.3 billion to aid the war against Hamas. More than 9 000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s siege on Gaza, which some have deemed a genocide. 

During talks with Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv on Friday, Blinken reportedly urged for a “humanitarian pause”.