US faces tough questions with African trade group | ET REALITY

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As the United States seeks to deepen its relations with African nations and counter the influence of rivals such as Russia and China, it faces a difficult question: How does it respond when countries do things that run counter to Washington’s stated commitment to democracy and human rights? humans?

That tension loomed over a major trade conference between the United States and African countries that began in Johannesburg this week after President Biden announced he would suspend four nations of a critical trade program that aims to promote economic development in Africa.

One of the suspended countries, Uganda, which passed a law this year requiring life in prison for anyone who engages in gay sex, sent a delegation to the conference to advocate for its reinstatement in the program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA. . Biden wrote to Congress that Uganda had been removed because it “engaged in serious violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

Susan Muhwezi, trade advisor to the president of Uganda, rejected that statement and described Uganda as “an island of peace.”

“If we’re supposed to be friends, trade with each other,” she said in an interview at the conference, “I think there are better ways to express your concerns than saying, ‘I’m the boss and I have to hit.'” you.’” He added that removing Uganda from the program would harm the livelihoods of traders of cotton, coffee, vanilla and other goods who accounted for the $12.3 million in exports the East African nation made through the program. trade in the United States last year.

“Isn’t it also a violation of human rights in another way?” she said, referring to the United States’ decision to suspend Uganda from the program.

Once the suspensions take effect on January 1, there will be 31 countries participating in the trade program. It was signed into law in 2000 and is open to nations in sub-Saharan Africa, allowing them to export certain products to the United States without having to pay tariffs. Last year, the U.S. received about 30 billion dollars in goods through AGOA.

The tension between promoting democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and maintaining influence abroad is not new for the United States. It is very much alive today in Africa with competition between the United States, Russia and China, where Moscow and Beijing promise help. and untethered security. But for the United States, the campaign to promote democracy is, among other things, an essential sales pitch to a domestic audience that has become increasingly isolationist in recent years.

Gabon and Niger were suspended by Biden after coups that violated the trade program’s eligibility requirements. The president of the Central African Republic, who was also suspended, pushed for a measure this year to eliminate presidential term limits. Wagner, the Russian mercenary group, runs the country’s security.

To maintain eligibility in the program, countries must meet certain conditionsincluding supporting democracy, protecting human rights, and not acting against the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.

They can be suspended for committing “serious violations of internationally recognized human rights” or supporting terrorism and efforts to eliminate human rights. Enforcing these requirements involves difficult calculations for the United States.

The Biden administration has stressed the importance of engaging African nations as equals. But by taking punitive measures, Washington risks being seen as lecturing or attempting to impose its values ​​on countries that have a painful and not-so-distant experience of colonial rule.

While these suspensions were the result of violations that the White House considered egregious, Biden administration officials say they are trying to be sensitive to these concerns. Judd Devermont, a top White House adviser on African affairs, said the administration has prioritized “injecting some more complexity into our relationships” in Africa and accepting that it will disagree with countries on some issues.

“When we have differences, we should reach out and talk about them,” he said. “By the way, that’s what we do with other countries in other regions of the world.”

Even some American lawmakers have argued that the United States should be cautious about revoking privileges from African countries that might violate the standards it has set. They argue that doing so could end up punishing ordinary people for the actions of their governments, and could cause African nations on the continent to gravitate towards rival countries, resulting in an even greater threat to American interests.

In addition to “egregious violations of principles or undermining core American interests,” keeping the countries on the trade agenda is important for “the country’s business owners and small business owners, as well as the relationship overall,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen. . , a Democrat from Maryland.

At the same time, the Biden administration faces pressure from lawmakers, particularly Republicans, to take an even closer look at nations that benefit from AGOA.

They point to the conference’s host nation, South Africa, which just six months ago was in a tense standoff with Washington over accusations made by the U.S. ambassador that South Africa provided weapons to Russia for the Ukraine war.

Republican Sens. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Tim Scott of South Carolina issued separate statements this week criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to proceed with the conference in South Africa while issues persist. related to South Africa’s support for Russia. irresolute.

They also criticized South Africa’s response to the war in Gaza, noting that South Africa’s foreign minister spoke by phone with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and visited Iran, where she met with President Ebrahim Raisi. Hamas, which controls Gaza and orchestrated the attack on Israel on October 7, is a proxy for Iran.

“The administration’s decision to host the AGOA forum in South Africa and maintain South Africa’s eligibility for AGOA benefits in 2024 compromises the integrity of the program and our trade preferences,” Risch wrote.

The trade program will expire in 2025, when Congress will have to decide whether to reauthorize it. While Risch said he supported its renewal, he suggested that lawmakers could require significant changes to the program, which could lead to a difficult reauthorization process.

The White House probably concluded that whatever sins South Africa committed, they weren’t worth imploding the relationship over, several analysts said in recent interviews.

South Africa is the biggest beneficiary of the trade pact, with $3 billion in exports last year. It is one of the most advanced economies on the continent and the United States views it as an important ally with influence over other African nations.

South Africa has mediated peace efforts in several conflicts across Africa, helping to create stability that the United States sees as vital to its own interests, in part because it can prevent the spread of extremist groups.

Teddy Ruge, a Ugandan businessman, was on a plane to Johannesburg when Biden announced the suspensions. Mr Ruge is the founder of Raintree Farms, which exports to the US. moringa, a plant based on Powder used in many health products.

Sitting at the conference behind a booth covered with the Ugandan flag, he said he felt embarrassed that everyone was looking at them as if they were “the bad boy.”

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