U.S. Cuts Ethiopia From Trade Program, Issues Sanctions Over Human Rights Violations

President Joe Biden is cutting Ethiopia out of a U.S. trade program after the African nation continued to ignore the "gross violations" of human rights during the ongoing Tigray region war, the Associated Press reported.

Biden wrote in a letter to Congress saying Ethiopia was in "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights." The U.S. and United Nations said Ethiopian troops have continually prevented the passage of trucks carrying aid and food, in which many in the area have been deprived. Scores of people have starved to death, according to AP.

Biden signed an executive order in September threatening to levy sanctions against Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed because of the conflict and fatal harm in the Tigray region if steps were not taken to stop the 11-month war.

Biden said that Ethiopia had not met eligibility requirements to remain a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, setting a path for sanctions against Ethiopia. The African Growth and Opportunity Act provides sub-Saharan African nationals duty-free access to the U.S. if they meet certain requirements, such as eliminating barriers to U.S. trade and investment and taking steps toward political pluralism.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

President Joe Biden cut Ethiopia out of a U.S. trade program on Tuesday after the African nation continued to ignore the “gross violations” of human rights during the ongoing Tigray region war. Above, people in front of clouds of black smoke from fires in the aftermath at the scene of an airstrike in Mekele, the capital of the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, on October 20, 2021. Associated Press

The sanctions go into effect on January 1. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said in a statement her office would "provide each country with clear benchmarks for a pathway toward reinstatement and our Administration will work with them to achieve that objective."

Ethiopia's government, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the White House action, had lobbied openly against the move.

Biden's announcement came as U.S. Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman told reporters that the parties to the conflict "don't seem anywhere near" a cease-fire or talks and called the humanitarian conditions in Tigray "unacceptable."

"Without question, the situation is getting worse and worse, and frankly we are getting alarmed by the situation," he said, referring not only to the Ethiopian government blockade on the Tigray region but the Tigray forces' push into the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar in the past four months, widening the humanitarian crisis.

In a commentary last month in Foreign Policy magazine, Ethiopia's chief trade negotiator Mamo Mihretu wrote that "Ethiopia's fledgling manufacturing sector could face an existential threat" and "removal of AGOA eligibility would only worsen the condition of ordinary Ethiopians who have no connection to the Tigray conflict."

He said that under AGOA in 2000, Ethiopia exported goods worth "a minuscule $28 million to the United States; in 2020, that figure rose roughly tenfold and stood at close to $300 million, nearly half of it under the AGOA."

He asserted that Ethiopia's removal from AGOA "would deal a serious blow to the welfare of millions of low-income workers."

Ethiopia in recent years had one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, but the war has brought that momentum to a halt.

Just 13 percent of the needed humanitarian aid has entered Tigray in recent months because of "intentional" government restrictions, some food distribution partners have been forced to suspend their work, and "bodies are already consuming themselves because of famine," Feltman said. "No government can tolerate an armed insurgency. We get that," he added, but said no government should "engage in mass starvation against citizens."

Feltman also warned that the U.S. opposes any attempt by the Tigray forces to "besiege" Ethiopia's capital after the fighters took control of the strategic cities of Dessie and Kombolcha in the past few days, putting them in a position to move down a major highway toward the capital.

Feltman said Ethiopian officials at a retreat in Washington in June were warned that Ethiopia's relations with the U.S. were at a crossroads. That crossroads, the special envoy, said, "are behind us."

Mesfin Tegenu, chairman of the American-Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, estimated an immediate impact of some 200,000 jobs lost, most among low-income female workers.

"On behalf of the 1 million members of the Ethiopian-American community, we call on the administration to think again," Mesfin said in a statement.