Trump ends trade benefits for Cameroon over ‘persistent human rights violations’
President Trump said he will soon ax Cameroon from a trade program that allows African countries to sell goods to the United States on a duty-free basis, citing “persistent human rights violations” in a letter to Congress on Thursday.
The decision comes as U.S. officials accuse the Central African nation of extrajudicial killings and unlawful detentions amid conflicts that have displaced more than a half-million people over the past two years.
“Despite intensive engagement between the United States and the Government of Cameroon, Cameroon has failed to address concerns regarding persistent human rights violations being committed by Cameroonian security forces,” Trump said in the message.
The punitive measure begins Jan. 1.
Cameroonian officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Allegations of human rights abuses center on the country’s Anglophone crisis, which began in 2016 with protests in English-speaking areas over the use of French in schools and courts. (About 80 percent of Cameroon speaks French.) That trouble has evolved into a full-blown conflict between armed Anglophone separatist groups and government forces. Both sides have been accused of violent crimes.
The Cameroonian government has jailed activists without charge and failed to punish soldiers who crack down on dissent with torture and indiscriminate killing, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. State Department.
A video analysis from Amnesty International last summer appeared to show Cameroonian troops executing unarmed people, including children, in the country’s north.
Slashing access to the world’s biggest market is meant to send President Paul Biya “a strong disapproving message,” said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of Vanguard Africa, an ethical-leadership nonprofit organization.
Cameroon, which has a population of approximately 24 million, exported $220 million in goods to the United States last year, including mineral fuel, wood, rubber and cocoa, according to American trade data.
Nearly three dozen African countries participate in the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a Clinton-era policy meant to boost the continent’s economic engagement with the United States.
Several nations over the past decade have faced suspensions or bans, most often over human rights abuses. Trump froze Rwanda’s trade benefits last year because the East African country refused to allow U.S. exports of used clothing.
In addition to the Anglophone crisis, Cameroon also has struggled to ward off Boko Haram fighters on the country’s northwestern border with Nigeria.
Biya’s government has responded to both threats in a brutal manner, said Joshua Meservey, a senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation. Blacklisting Cameroon in the trade arena, he said, “avoids unleashing the nuclear option of sanctions against the most senior officials of a country fighting Boko Haram.”
Cameroon is losing its AGOA membership nine months after the United States announced it was yanking military aid from the country.
The nation has been considered an important U.S. security partner — about 300 U.S. troops were based there in February to train the Cameroonian military and assist in the fight against extremist groups. That relationship faltered in light of reports of security forces firing at civilians in border areas, where the military is battling English-speaking separatists fighting to create their own nation called Ambazonia.
In an interview with The Washington Post late last year, Col. Didier Badjeck, a spokesman for Cameroon’s Defense Ministry, called such allegations “propaganda.”
Human Rights Watch said in an August report that the government has tortured detainees and held them for weeks without letting them contact family members or lawyers.
Biya said last month that he would drop charges against more than 300 prisoners arrested during the separatist rebellion — a release Anglophone leaders categorized as a publicity stunt. Peace talks have remained tense.