(CNN)Ethiopia will lose access to a lucrative US trade program due to human rights violations unless it takes significant steps toward ending the ongoing conflict and alleviating the humanitarian crisis by the start of 2022, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
President Joe Biden has determined that Ethiopia is out of compliance with the eligibility requirements of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) “for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights,” he said in a message to Congress Tuesday.
The Ethiopian government must take “urgent action” by January 1 in order to remain in the program, which grants eligible sub-Saharan African nations duty-free access to the US market for thousands of products.
The Biden administration is also preparing to issue sanctions under an executive order signed by Biden in September authorizing broad sanctions against those involved in perpetrating the ongoing conflict, according to the officials.
The moves come as the conflict in northern Ethiopia nears its grim one-year milestone and millions of Ethiopians risk starvation. There have been repeated calls from the United States and the international community for the parties to the conflict, including the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Eritrean forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), to end hostilities.
“We are urging the government of Ethiopia to take urgent steps by insuring an end to all gross human rights violations, granting unhindered access to international human rights monitors, removing barriers to humanitarian operations,” another senior administration official said. “We are urging all parties to halt military operations that are causing widespread loss of life and threats to civilians and to come to the negotiating table without preconditions.”
Ethiopian government ‘extremely disappointed’
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Trade and Regional Integration said in a statement Tuesday they “are extremely disappointed by the threat of AGOA withdrawal currently under consideration by the US Government.”
“These actions will reverse significant economic gains in our country and unfairly impact and harm women and children,” the statement said.
“Ethiopia will continue to make every effort to correct any unintended or perceived wrongs,” the ministry said, adding, “This decision must be reversed by January 1, 2022 and we urge the United States to support our ongoing efforts to restore peace and the rule of law — not punish our people for confronting an insurgent force that is attempting to bring down our democratically elected government.”
“The Ethiopian government takes all human rights allegations seriously: we are looking at them and conducting investigations and we are committed to ensuring accountability,” they said.
CNN has reported extensively on human rights abuses committed during the conflict, including detentions, acts of sexual violence, and killings that bear the hallmarks of genocide — findings that have contributed to calls from bipartisan lawmakers for the administration to take action.
An investigation by CNN released in early October found that the Ethiopian government has used the country’s flagship commercial airline, Ethiopian Airlines, to shuttle weapons to and from neighboring Eritrea during the course of the war. Ethiopian Airlines said in a statement that it “strongly” refuted the findings of the investigation.
The CNN investigation also triggered calls by US lawmakers for sanctions and investigations into Ethiopia’s AGOA eligibility. At the time US officials told CNN they would review Ethiopia’s eligibility in 2022, the scheduled review point.
‘Cannot continue ‘business as usual’
US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said Tuesday that “as the war approaches its one-year anniversary, the United States and others cannot continue ‘business as usual’ relations with the government of Ethiopia.”
“The extraordinary partnership we have enjoyed is not sustainable while the military conflict continues to expand, threatening the stability and the unity of one of Africa’s most influential countries … and the fundamental well-being of its people,” he said in remarks at the US Institute of Peace Tuesday.
On the pending termination of Ethiopia’s participation in AGOA, Feltman said, “the US did not want to do this and we’ve been previewing with the Ethiopian government for months that this was a risk.”
“What I hope that the takeaway from this is that they basically have a bit of time to prevent us from actually moving forward implementing the loss of eligibility in January.”
Feltman, who the Ethiopian government refused a visit from last month, said he was prepared to travel to Ethiopia. He called on all parties to the conflict to cease hostilities.
Calls to ‘correct course’
Last week, the top Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on the Abiy government to “correct course and avert a revocation of AGOA benefits.”
“It is up to Prime Minister Abiy to take immediate, concrete action to avoid further gross violations of human rights and to bring Ethiopia into compliance with its obligations to both the Ethiopian people and the eligibility requirements of this trade preference program,” Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Michael McCaul said.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons — who was dispatched to Addis Ababa by the Biden administration in March to meet with Abiy — said Tuesday, “I regret it has come to this, but I support the President’s decision to follow the letter of the law.”
“The bipartisan legislation that established AGOA is crystal clear — countries that violate internationally recognized human rights cannot participate,” he said in a statement to CNN. “I urge the Ethiopian government, the TPLF, and other warring parties to protect human rights, immediately work towards a political solution to the conflict, and open and maintain humanitarian access channels so the US and Ethiopia can restore and rebuild our partnership.”
“Applaud the Admin’s decision to end Ethiopia’s eligibility for trade preferences under the African Growth & Opportunity Act in January absent urgent action to stop human rights violations. Parties to the conflict in Ethiopia must be held accountable for unconscionable abuses,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted Tuesday.
In a virtual late August meeting with Ethiopia’s senior policy advisor and Chief Trade Negotiator Mamo Mihretu, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai “raised the ongoing violations of internationally recognized human rights amid the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, which could affect Ethiopia’s future African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) eligibility if unaddressed,” according to a readout from her office.
US ‘cannot look the other way’
The first administration official said that Biden made the decision on Ethiopia’s lack of compliance with AGOA eligibility requirements following “a months-long review and public call for information.”
“The government cannot engage in gross violation of human rights and must cooperate in international efforts to eliminate human rights violations and the United States cannot look the other way on these criteria and nor should we want to,” they said.
This official said they were announcing the move to revoke Ethiopia’s AGOA access now consistent with the typical 60-day statutory notice under the law. They said there is a process where Ethiopia could be “reinstated when the appropriate actions have been taken” even if that takes place prior to the 2022 annual review of its eligibility.
The governments of Mali and Guinea are also set to be terminated from AGOA on January 1, 2022 for “unconstitutional (changes) in government,” according to US Trade Representative Tai.
“These countries are set to be removed from this program due to actions taken by their governments in violation of the AGOA Statute,” she said in a statement. “The United States urges these governments to take necessary actions to meet the statutory criteria so we can resume our valued trading partnerships. I will provide each country with clear benchmarks for a pathway toward reinstatement and our Administration will work with them to achieve that objective.”
In an opinion piece published in Foreign Policy last month, Ethiopia’s Chief Trade Negotiator Mihretu argued that “removal of AGOA eligibility would only worsen the condition of ordinary Ethiopians who have no connection to the Tigray conflict,” including women and low income workers.
The second senior administration official said they “sincerely hope that the Prime Minister uses this opportunity, this space, and in light of what is happening on the ground, to take positive steps to come to the negotiating table for the sake of the country and for those women…who will be affected by this.”
“It’s really up to Prime Minister Abiy to take the steps he needs to in order to hopefully stave off the ineligibility trigger of January 1,” they said.
This story has been updated with additional reaction and background information.
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Bethlehem Feleke, and Nima Elbagir contributed to this report.