Trump’s actions might be a win for human rights activists, who have called for increased international pressure to end abuses in Cameroon. However, other U.S. interests might be driving Trump’s decision. Here’s what you need to know.
This U.S. trade program has a human rights linkage
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is a U.S. trade program created in 2000 for up to 49 potentially eligible countries in Africa. AGOA status allows eligible countries to export 1,800 types of products to the United States without the purchasers on the U.S. side having to pay import duties.
In exchange for duty-free access under AGOA, countries must have or be moving toward free-market economies, the rule of law and labor protections. AGOA also requires that countries not pursue “activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests” or commit “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
Robust human rights conditions are a critical feature of AGOA. The U.S. president may grant a country AGOA beneficiary status, subject to review and the possibility of termination for violations.
Does linking trade to human rights work?
Some scholars argue that linking trade to human rights performance could improve human rights. The threat of withdrawing trade benefits might deter governments from violating the human rights of their citizens. But this perspective does not take into account other U.S. interests that may influence decisions on AGOA eligibility and trade benefits.
In our research on AGOA, Eric Reinhardt and I find that a country in which the United States has strong trade, investment and security interests is less likely to experience AGOA termination. If a country is highly nondemocratic or has experienced a successful coup d’etat, the United States is more likely to end its AGOA beneficiary status. However, the country’s human rights record has a less consistent and weaker effect on its AGOA status.
In fact, the decision to withdraw a country’s AGOA privileges appears to have little to do with even the most extreme human rights violations. Here’s what that means: Governments with a poor or worsening human rights record may be under-sanctioned. But countries with improving or good records may be over-sanctioned, depending on their relative importance to U.S. trade, investment and security interests.
Here’s how this played out in Kenya
Kenya’s experience in 2007 and 2008 illustrates this phenomenon. The U.S. government considered terminating Kenya’s status following a massive wave of post-election violence, which left about 1,200 dead and 600,000 displaced. U.S. officials knew that Kenya’s security forces had committed abuses, including extrajudicial killings and the torture and beatings of detainees.
But the United States decided not to terminate Kenya’s AGOA status. Why? Kenya was a leading participant in the global coalition against terrorism. In addition, business associations lobbied the U.S. trade representative’s office to retain Kenya’s AGOA eligibility to facilitate its members’ profitable AGOA apparel trade.
Another example occurred in 2018, when Trump suspended Rwanda’s duty-free access to the United States. He did so not because of Rwandan human rights violations but because the Rwandan government had banned the import of used clothing from U.S. firms.
Cameroon saw election violence — a year ago
Trump’s termination of Cameroon’s AGOA status comes one year after President Paul Biya won a seventh term in office. Biya, who has ruled Cameroon since 1982, won about 71 percent of the votes. But election violence and allegations of fraud and intimidation marred this election. Many Cameroonians were frightened to vote, because of insecurity that began in 2016, when security forces repressed largely peaceful demonstrations from the country’s Anglophone minority who demanded greater autonomy.
The violence was horrific. Government security forces used live ammunition against protesters and bystanders, killing at least a dozen people and injuring many others. The government detained and tortured others.
The conflict escalated as separatist leaders declared independence, establishing an aspirational country called Ambazonia in western Cameroon. According to the International Crisis Group, the conflict between government security forces and separatists has left 1,850 dead, displaced 530,000 and led tens of thousands to seek refuge abroad. Numerous schools closed, and more than 170 villages were destroyed. The local economy, accounting for one-fifth of Cameroon’s GDP, has been devastated.
The abuses haven’t stopped — but why is the Trump administration acting now? Cameroon recently released several political prisoners, including a key opposition leader, Maurice Kamto, and adopted a special status for Anglophone regions, a concession meant to reinforce the regions’ autonomy.
Despite the country’s overall human rights record, the United States previously considered Cameroon a key U.S. security partner in the fight against extremist groups such as Boko Haram, which is active in northern Cameroon. The government of Cameroon promoted U.S. national security interests, which insulated it from human rights sanctions.
That key security position changed nine months ago when the United States announced it would no longer provide military aid to Cameroon.
Human rights abuses by Cameroonian security forces certainly appear to violate the eligibility requirements of AGOA. However, terminating Cameroon’s status is more likely a reflection of a shift in U.S. interests in the region than it is a signal of Trump’s commitment to improving human rights.
Travis Curtice (@travisbcurtice) is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science at Emory University and a Peace Scholar Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.